Saturday, July 17, 2010

"Quality vs. junk journalism"? Or news vs. other information/distractions?

I thought I would continue my discussion of the competitive environment for news, after spotting "What the audience wants" isn’t always junk journalism on the Nieman journalism blog (once again, it's something I found through Mediagazer, which has replaced Romenesko as my main source of news about news).

Laura McGann's Nieman blog post suggests that "coverage based on clicks" is a recent phenomenon. I would argue that it actually has many parallels in the traditional media world. Ever since revenue has been tied to metrics, publishers (and journalists) have employed various tactics to boost circulation/viewership. Long before there were "10 worst movie villains" slideshows on the 'Net, broadcast news had "sweeps week" and newspaper publishers realized that crime news, investigative reporting, and 96-point headlines helped attract eyeballs and drive advertising/circulation revenue.

Also, in the always-connected mobile and Web world, news organizations should understand that it's not always a question of audiences wanting quality vs. junk journalism. It's a question of people them wanting information, or sometimes wanting a distraction. Newspaper publishers -- including the New York Times and The Washington Post -- realized this a long time ago, and offered funnies, crosswords, sports, recipes, and sudoku to their print readership, in addition to high-quality journalism.

But online and on mobile devices, the focus is still on hard news and quality journalism. This is despite the fact that audience members clearly want other types of information besides news. They want updates from their social circles, information about personal or professional interests, product-related data, etc. -- as well as entertainment and other distractions such as playing games, listening to music, looking at photographs, and playing videos.

Another way of looking at the situation: publishers are competing with sites, services and products that they seldom considered as rivals in the old days. In the oil spill example given in the Nieman blog, the people who tuned into the spill coverage and later tired of it may have switched to other quality journalism stories and sources afterward. But I suspect that many turned to "junk journalism," and even greater numbers turned to information/entertainment sources that aren't even "news."

Is that a bad thing? I don't think so. Quality news and other types of information and entertainment shouldn't be seen as mutually exclusive. In print this isn't an issue -- no one thinks the Boston Globe is committing sacrilege by publishing the funnies, automobile reviews, MLB stats and photographs of rich people attending fundraisers and other social functions. The Globe recognized years ago that readers want these information and distractions, just as Yahoo has recognized that people nowadays have certain online information and entertainment needs, ranging from hard news to online games. It's a tough place for Yahoo to compete -- there are too many competing services, CPMs are low, and there are added costs to operating the services. But it's something that sets Yahoo apart from other publishers, in the eyes of audiences and advertisers.

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