The Breakfast Table

A Few Good Readers

Good morning, Ken.

Back down from the lofty heights of yesterday, I’m thinking about “e-content.” Don’t gag. It’s already a beaten horse, I know: I’m tired of seeing the phrase “chickens coming home to roost” used about the layoffs at Salon, the shutdown of APBNews, etc. But I, and perhaps you, have a special interest in this kind of thing.

I was just reading Lamar Graham on The effect on online journalism of having accurate statistics on readership of every single article and page is really interesting. It forces people to confront the value of this semi-sacred cow, “journalism,” in a way they haven’t quite had to do since during the days when Gannet began cloning USA Today in every city.

Salon, as everyone knows, openly said they were canning the people whose pages got less traffic. “Frankly, I believe what’s really got us journalists scared here is the idea of being held personally, quantitatively accountable for whether our work really reaches anyone,” writes Graham.

Horrors! What are we, widget salesmen? Assembly-line workers? Because the numbers have never been brought to bear on us, we fear and loathe them. We maintain that mere statistics can’t possibly measure the intellectual value of our work.But they can to some degree. … And I’m not sure that’s such a terrible thing. Frankly, I find it both a little amusing and a little hypocritical that we journalists–we who are so judgmental, we who are always demanding accountability of corporate lackeys, celebrities, government bureaucrats and other mere mortals–are scared so witless of having to prove that our own ideas have some actual value in the marketplace of ideas.

While I like the way that having this traffic information available causes people to start questioning older ways of constructing and disseminating journalism, I think that an argument like this (and granted, I’ve probably distorted it a little with my excerpts) doesn’t take enough factors into account. Certainly, traffic accountability is important for a business, and if you don’t have a business, you can’t afford to do good journalism on a large scale.

But journalism and its related enterprises are not purely about business, are they? They’re about communication, something that has constantly been touted for decades as one of the lifebloods of our society, and certainly it’s the very core of what the Internet is about. And “communication” is a pretty complicated affair. I’m thinking of the parts I’ve read of Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, for example, where he talks about exactly how ideas are spread. It’s not an automatic process, meaning that it’s not about pure numbers. It’s organic. Things are spread by particular types of people in particular types of ways. PR people understand that a lot better than journalists do.

Anyway, I think that those more complex understandings of how “communication” works ought to be woven into these discussions of online journalism business models. The business people at publications rightly care how many people are reading everything. But the editors and writers often care more about who is reading what. That’s a big part of their “actual value in the marketplace of ideas.” And it shouldn’t be lost in the haste to apply an inadequate model with which to examine these problems.