Back in the old days, editors decided what was news, not advertisers and not readers. There was this concept called "news values." Full-time professionals laid out the front page. They tried to highlight important political, economic, and social trends, coverage deemed important, rather than celebrities, fashions, nudity, and violence.
This was a long time ago. Back in the 1970s.
Which is not to say that media don't play to audiences. The original Yellow Journalism was Pulitzer vs. Hearst in the 1890s. And when I was a mainstream journalist, in the 1970s, playing to readers' baser instincts was already commonplace. Some words in headlines -- naked, violent, brutal, for example -- produced better results than others.
Still, the idea was that editors protected news values. They were gatekeepers. So the front page had important news, that people should be reading, rather than sensational news. The idea was embattled, but treasured.
Today, however: not so much. Nicholas Carlson posting on Silicon Valley Insider proclaims NYT.com Front Page Editors Ignore Reader Clicks, and he's not writing about how the editors are intrepidly holding out for news values. I'd like to imagine the crusty old editor saying no, resisting the temptation to appeal to audiences' taste for gossip and sensationalism, insisting on highlighting important news and analysis. But no, this is criticism. He quotes a New York Observer story:
"In terms of minute-to-minute news decisions, I think that would pretty much drive me crazy," NYTimes.com's digital news editor Jim Roberts told the Observer.
"I don't want people to call up NYTimes.com and feel like that they've just landed in an environment that is alien to them," he said. "It isn't necessarily the New York Times in print, but it needs to reflect the same attitudes and standards."
He thinks they're sadly out of date, and, in the background, doomed. He cites the Huffington Post as the example of the right way to do it, by following the clicks. He says editors have to watch the clicks for two reasons:
- It's the main way readers can show what kinds of stories they care about.
- The New York Times is a deeply-in-debt, for-profit enterprise that needs to grow its traffic online in order to survive. Web editors should not pretend that it doesn't matter how many ad impressions the Times serves each day.
I can argue with that first point. Call me old fashioned, elitist maybe, but I'm okay with Jim Roberts' comment above. I don't want the National Enquirer to replace the New York Times. I'm happy to think that humans are still guarding news values. Somebody has to. Right?
But how do you argue about that second point there, in the quote above: the money? What if doing news right is an obsolete business model? It could happen. Could? No, it is happening.
Irony: I'm glad to see that the New York Times made a profit in the second quarter of the year, but I read that news on the Huffington Post. And I don't subscribe to the New York Times, either; I get it free online.
(Image by B.K. Dewey on Flickr)