David Carr's Monday column in the New York Times on blogging is the kind of half-decade-late-to-the-party rumination that is best left to molder quickly into compost. But. I. Can't. Resist.
David Carr now has his own blog. This has inspired him to suggest to his readers that they think of a blog as "a large yellow Labrador: friendly, fun, not all that bright, but constantly demanding your attention." Since I think of my own blog as more akin to a pack of snarling wolves, snapping their fangs as they bring down a mighty elk, I took some umbrage. Yes, bloggers are far too quick to start yelping when mainstream journalists smile condescendingly and pat their heads. But calling them "not all that bright"? Why, that's the kind of comment that seems purposely designed to spark reader outrage, and a consequent swelling of page views.
Shocking -- such yellow journalism by the great Gray Lady. But also: the perfect transition to a consideration of Carr's breathtaking and horrifying revelation -- that page views have become a prime metric for evaluating journalist performance. This is why, I think, the New York Times continues to reign supreme as the paper of record: Who knew that "Web analytics -- that ugly term of art -- is changing newspapers, too"?
It would be unseemly, I suppose, to point out that at Salon, we've been mulling over what page views mean for the practice of journalism for, oh, 11 years. (But I'm already blogging about a column on blogging, so any pretense at occupying the higher ground has been forfeited here from the get-go.) I won't deny that the first time you see a review of a reality TV show get 50,000 page views while your own feature on media consolidation gets about 5,000 is a bit of a downer -- as is the harsh reality that if you break up an article into multiple pages, you're very lucky if more than 50 percent of the readers of the first page go on to the second.
But excuse me while I go collect my eyeballs, because they just rolled so hard that they popped right out of my head. Carr intones: "But at some point, ratings (which print journalists, unlike their television counterparts, have never had to contend with) will start to impinge on news judgment."
First, I'd argue that print journalists have been contending with ratings for a long, long time. The result: People magazine, Us Weekly, "Entertainment Tonight," the New York Times Styles section, sports coverage, gossip, etc. Fluff generates readership: Everybody knows this and everyone has always known it. The main difference between the pre- and post-Internet eras is that now we have hard evidence.
Cue the collapse of civilization: a media landscape populated by nothing except blogs prattling endlessly about every possible iota of minutiae relating to the Oscars.
That's just not going to happen. I've been accused of being a pollyanna on this topic before, but until the growth of the Internet actually results in a net loss in my access to news, information and informed analysis, I'm going to stand by this prediction: Should the world ever come to offer us nothing besides People magazine, there will suddenly be an extraordinary market opportunity for the kind of "reflectiveness, the ability for careful summation and expression," that Carr quotes Clay Shirky as suggesting is lost in the prurient wilds of the blogosphere.
Meanwhile, the mainstream media still hasn't quite figured out that one of the reasons the blogosphere is thriving is because so much of it is not dedicated to the profit-seeking pursuit of ratings. Economists, historians, obsessed geeks -- they're all blogging because they want to, because they're passionate about something, anything.
This has created a more competitive landscape for newspapers. But the answer is not to look at your page-view stats and decide to turn the front page over to Britney Spears. The answer is to make every effort to tap that same passion and point of view and obsessiveness, and give it play, while at the same time going about your newspaper-of-record business. Challenging? Yes. Impossible? I don't think so. From at least the time of Gutenberg, any publisher who lusted after bigger circulation numbers has understood that if you don't appeal to readers, you will go nowhere. The necessary exercise of "news judgment," for those who are dedicated to their craft, has always been: How do I balance doing the important and self-fulfilling work that I want to do with the stuff that will bring in enough readers to ensure that I get to keep doing it.
Which is why I intend to follow this post bashing the New York Times (an exercise that is inordinately popular with Salon readers) with something that I actually care about, like economic growth in the developing world (which has yet to prove the same ability to attract crowds). Tune in tomorrow to see who wins the page-view race. But don't expect a change in what gets covered as a result.