Editorial arrogance

January 3, 2012

Update: Edin Beslagic wrote a smart reply here.

I finally got around to seeing Page One last night, a documentary about the New York Times, and a certain point hit harder than the rest.

The documentary briefly explains how editors at the New York Times decide which stories will go on the front page. The short clip gives viewers a sense that there are few important factors, which seem very similar to the commonly agreed factors of newsworthiness: impact, timeliness, proximity, etc.

With the advent of the Internet, some have shuffled metrics into these factors, placing it near the top of list.

Talking with Andy Boyle and Edin Beslagic via Twitter, I quickly realized that I’m nearly alone in thinking metrics are taking too much of a front-seat role. Don’t get me wrong - I check metrics of the Minnesota Daily almost daily, and they’re an invaluable resource. We also use analytics at MinnPost extensively. But I disagree that metrics should trump editorial decisions on which stories should be read.

Clearly print and the web are different beasts. They are not the same product. But they do serve the same purpose.

Every journalism class I’ve taken has spent at least a few minutes on the concept of editorial judgment. We, as journalists, decide what we believe is important for our readers. We create beats, we assign certain stories to freelancers, we decide how many inches stories are worthy of, we position stories in the print edition and online, we decide which stories to tweet, the list goes on.

Let’s go ahead and be arrogant. It’s a classic case of, “they want candy, but they really need broccoli.” We’ve decided with print that we know what’s best. Why wouldn’t online be the same?

Yes, to a point. But I doubt they would make a huge difference. We can all think of stories that would get millions of reads, and some organizations publish these. But if online journalism becomes a metric-driven fest, count me out.

Take a look at the USA Today college home page:

USA Today

Have you ever seen stories like this placed prominently in a decent print newspaper?

I’m sure the USA Today’s page views are nice. But it’s hard for me to agree with this. Maybe I’m just a sucker, but I came into journalism to do some good in the world.

The business argument fails for me. Sure, these stories probably fared well on social networks, and yes, this turns into ad revenue. But ad revenue alone is not sustainable for news organizations in print, and far less so online. We need a solid product if we want to make enough money. And featuring top four steps to exercising stories is not going to cut it.

This is a very intriguing point. If we do believe the audience is different, featuring different stories does makes sense. But I’d argue that we are targeting approximately the same audience between print and online, with certain factors coming into play.

One of my favorite parts of a print newspaper is knowing that some arrogant editor chose which five stories to feature on page one. If I don’t want to read a story, I can skip it, but I must make an effort to look past it.

Online, it can be hard to tell what I should read. Depending on the time of day I reach the site, a different story is featured. Now, I love variety, and clearly this is one of the advantages of the online platform. But as Andy mentioned (though I do not see the tweet anymore), metrics show users hit news sites about once a day.

Now, I’d love evidence of this, but let’s assume this is true for a minute. If our readers have a few minutes to catch up on the news, I want them to see a page that prominently displays what our arrogant editors believe to be the most newsworthy.

If they chose to read crap, they can find it, maybe even under a “most popular” widget. But they’ll at least be exposed to the best stories.

The biggest argument against this is:

But since online is a different product, let’s take advantage. Give readers the best story that they haven’t read today. We already rank stories for print, put those ranks online, and turn the front page into a running queue. Breaking news and updates trump this rank, as do special situations, but I believe this would be a better starting base.

Sure, there are issues. Many issues. But we haven’t figured it out yet, and we only will if we experiment. But maybe I’m just being arrogant.

Please chime in.