Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Measures of success: Topical or deep analysis?

Going in deep requires specialised
In an interesting piece on the Nieman Journalism Lab website, Jonathan Groves and Carrie Brown-Smith take a look at culture change in newsrooms. Their good-news exemplar is the Christian Science Monitor, a vehicle of long standing, which in March 2009 took the plunge and moved from a daily print edition to a weekly print edition plus a topical news website. They met with success, according to Groves and Brown-Smith, and we discern success in this case by looking at their stats.
Today, csmonitor.com receives 30 million pageviews a month, and advertising prospects are improving. And newsroom leaders are a bit more optimistic than three years ago.
How did they do this?
With the help of Jimmy Orr, the online editor at the time, as a primary change agent, newsroom leaders pushed writers and editors to develop new routines — such as more frequent updates, more topical stories, and headlines written with search-engine optimization in mind.
So they attempted to - with success - become more topical, more in-tune with the zeitgeist, giving a CSM angle on stories that had already gained traction in the public sphere. This is something similar, I think I recall, to what happened at the Wall Street Journal after it was bought by News Corporation. And it's even something that I suggested a few days ago to a bunch of people on Twitter, in this case farmers, who are looking at ways to gain traction in the metro media space for their stories. I illustrated my thesis with a picture showing how dopamine, the natural opiate produced by the body, latches onto receptors in the target cell through specialised structures.

The search for topicality is one thing that seems to be happening a lot nowadays. But I think that there are other new and successful approaches to journalism. Given a budget and freedom to decide, The Global Mail has made a move in another direction: toward more in-depth reporting on subjects that might not seem to be important immediately but that, on closer analysis, turn out to be of real interest to readers. Some of the stories this vehicle runs are topical but the bulk of them are not. Specialised equipment? How about a philanthropist determined to remain at arms length from the news process and an experienced editorial staff? It seems to be working.

I have complained publicly about the short attention span that reporters have, and their superficial, part-of-the-picture, 24-7-news-cycle reporting. To get the whole picture a person needs to read a range of media outlets over a number of days, or weeks. In-depth reporting is hard to justify in an age when page views are the measure of success for a story. But I think that there is a latent demand for more sustained analysis of important issues, so that you take the focus away from the place where he-said-she-said journalism is good enough to justify today's update on the issue, and look instead to write sustained and accurate stories that might cost more but, in the long run, better serve the interests of the readership.

The problem seems to be, given that a paper such as the CSM measures its success by page views, how to encourage reporters to go deeper on a single issue until a larger picture is available, before publishing. To enable this to happen there would need to be some sort of signal from the readership that could be measured and appreciated. Perhaps we need to wait until tablet computers are in broader use, which would allow people to download those longer stories to read at leisure times. That would be a metric that could be used to gauge success for in-depth reporting. The kind that we need in these days of a superabundance of stories.


Susan Kirk said...

Have you seen this? http://longform.org/about/

Matthew da Silva said...

Yes, I have thanks. It's interesting what's happening.