By Farhi, Paul
American Journalism Review , Vol. 32, No. 3
On an ordinary weekday in August, the following stories and videos were prominently displayed on the Web sites of some of the nation's most respected news organizations:
-CBSNews.com's "recommended" videos included "Miss Transvestite South America," "Shark Swims Ashore Caught on Tape" [sic] and "Newlyweds Pay for Wedding by Recycling." Its "most popular" list featured "Diary of a Showgirl," "Smoking Baby is Real," "Fired for Being Too Sexy" and "Alligator Feeding Frenzy Caught on Tape."
-ABCNews.com had "How to Guide Your Dreams," "Sharks Scare East Coast Swimmers," "Lindsay Lohan Heads to Rehab" and " 'The View': Lady Gaga's Vagina Monologue."
-NBCNews.com's top-of-the-site display box included links to MSN.com stories such as "50 Stars from 50 States," "11 Telltale Signs He May be Having an Affair" and "6 Diet Trends You Should Never Try." Some of the site's own video news features were "Volunteers Drive into Russian Blaze" and "Falling Ice Kills Girl, 11."
-HuffingtonPost.com had such headlines as "Sex Tape Pics ...," "Kardashian Visits Cowboys," "Killer Bat Fungus," "World's Worst Urinal" and "Naked Lady Gaga Talks Drugs and Celibacy."
It doesn't take a computer scientist to understand the whys and wherefores of this kind of editorial decision-making. High-minded headlines and stories about foreign wars, the federal deficit or environmental despoilage might have paid the bills in the age of Murrow and Cronkite, but they only go so far these days. Shark videos and "naked Lady Gaga" headlines get major play on "serious" news sites for an obvious and no longer terribly shocking reason: They draw traffic. And these days, traffic, the massive ebb and flow of clicks and hits, is the Internet equivalent of the Nielsen ratings, the currency that determines the course of billions of dollars in advertising.
Of the many changes that the Internet has delivered to the nation's newsrooms, the ability to measure traffic for a given story, blog or video may be among the most profound. Publishers, editors and advertisers have always tried to ascertain the public's preferences. But audience research and reader surveys were invariably slow and backward-looking. Until the Internet came along with its server logs and audience metrics, no system gave editors a near-instantaneous verdict on their editorial decisions. For centuries, journalists divined what the public wanted to know essentially by guessing about it.
Now that journalists and advertisers do know, the question is, what's this knowledge doing to journalism? As the Lady Gaga headlines suggest, is the ability to discern what's "working" at any given moment a recipe for manipulation, titillation and pandering? Or is all that data really a godsend, providing the key to a better, more compelling and, yes, more financially sustainable type of news?
The advent of highly detailed metrics hasn't eliminated the need for creative editors, but it is guiding some of their calls. So-called content farms, such as Yahoo!'s Associated Content, AOL's Seed and Demand Media, have essentially automated the functions of the assignment desk. Demand, for example, uses sophisticated algorithms to sift through haystacks of Web searches and other data to identify popular search topics (say, "garden gnomes"). It then marries this intel with data on keywords that advertisers are paying the most to be associated with on search pages (say, "repairs"). Story topics ("how to repair garden gnomes") are then farmed out to armies of freelancers, who produce thousands of how-to articles and informational videos pegged to whatever the algorithms have detected.
The finished goods--featurettes on everything from travel tips to gardening to home repairs--then appear on popular Demand-owned Web sites like eHow.com and Livestrong.com, or on sites owned by mainstream media partners, such as USA Today, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the San Francisco Chronicle. …