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The news gap – what journalists print vs what readers read

March 12, 2011

Nieman Labs has a great post detailing Pablo Boczkowski‘s research on the difference between the news that leads websites, and the news that readers actually want to read.

Even if you don’t work in online media, you’ve seen this before. Take a look at any typical day at Stuff.co.nz‘s “most popular” box (full disclaimer: that’s the company I work for). A lot of those stories will never have shown their face “above the fold” – which online means everything you can see without scrolling.

Boczkowski looked at top news websites and compared the difference between what’s in that most popular box with what the editors were promoting (top 10 stories from each). He saw – no surprises here – that the stories leading these sites didn’t have a whole lot in common with what readers were reading that day.

It’s interesting to look at how that gap varied from site to site, and during major events (when they tended to be closer). CNN had one of the biggest (50% average difference). Boczkowski believes that shows news websites could be doing a better job selecting articles for their readers.

But there’s a few problems with Boczkowski’s approach. I don’t want to knock the research because it does raise some important questions about what stories journalists should promote to readers, questions that Nieman’s article deals with quite well. Questions like what the role of news is (educate vs entertain) and the role in journalism in a healthy democracy.

But his measures were crude enough (not his fault, the data he needs isn’t public) to hide a lot of other interesting points too.

Specifically:

1. Monetising broad-appeal topics can be harder than specific genres – Let’s take Charlie Sheen. If you fill your top slots with Charlie Sheen news, yes you’ll get a lot of clicks. But unless you can tell a lot about the specific reader (eg by making them register on your site), you’re serving low quality ads that don’t make you a lot of money per reader. You might also not be able to serve some ads if the content is blacklisted (eg about sex and drugs, advertisers often don’t want to be associated with stories like that).

The same applies for a story about a car crash or horrible sexual assault or something. Yes, lots of clicks, but not that valuable.

You can usually make better money off a story on a specific topic (say the stock market) because you can serve pricier ads there, because you know people who read stories about the stock market are more valuable to advertisers looking to target that niche.

So a story on the latest stock prices might only get a tenth of the views of a story on Mr Sheen, but could make you more money.

A news org isn’t only a business trying to make money of course, there are obligations to seek out the truth to ensure a healthy democracy. But most news orgs are out there to make money doing that, and increasingly the focus online is on the bottom line.

Also, a lot of traffic to popular stories comes from search engines, people who pop in and pop out again. That’s nice and you want their visit, but “Ooo-click-thank-you-miss” visitors (the news media’s version of “Wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am”) aren’t worth as much as readers who come to your site regularly, read several stories, and sign up for extra services. Those are the kind of readers most news orgs want.

That’s really the take-home point: Getting lots of views on stories is nice, but for most news orgs that’s not really the point. What they want is the variety of viewers that maximises revenue and profit. And that tends to come from stories that aren’t crime, celebrity or bizarre news, but meat-and-potatoes journalism.

2. The homepage is prime real estate, and space is scarce – A lot of news websites (like Stuff , the BBC, and the HuffPost) place their most popular boxes quite high (though there are exceptions, like the NYT and Guardian). That changes a lot of the calculus around deciding what to promote. A silly celebrity story will likely end up in the most popular anyway (see point #3), so you don’t really need to promote it as an editorial selection.

3. The homepage isn’t just about showing stories that readers will click on – That’s the main purpose of course, but homepages are also the first thing many readers (and your most valuable readers) see. It’s the most important page for branding your website. If you fill it with gossip, horror and other click magnets, you’ll get more page views in the short term, but lose out in the long term. For the most part, people can get celebrity news and bizarre stories from anywhere, unless the stories are in your local patch or niche. If you’re not giving readers what they expect from your brand – which is usually harder news – you’re going to lose those readers to websites that already do a good job of covering celebrity news and bizarre stories. This point doesn’t apply to crime stories of course.

The most popular box is often made quite obvious for this reason. You can show people the indulgent stories without any kind of editorial endorsement.

4. The homepage isn’t just about showing stories readers will click on (again) – Lots of readers load the homepage of a major news website without actually clicking on any stories. That’s not ideal for the website’s wallet, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the site failed the reader. I’ve read research papers (sorry, can’t find online) that show a lot of readers will scan a homepage to get the gist of what’s going on in their patch that day, and that’s all they really want.

The stories leading the site usually do a good job of that, and since most news websites make the highest proportion of their revenue from the homepage, it’s not that bad if someone decides they can’t find anything or don’t have time to read in depth. Not great, but as long as most readers find stories most days, that’s good for a generic homepage.

5. Promotion isn’t everything, and homepage editors know this – I’ve done my own research about the effect of promotion on news stories on Stuff.co.nz, and all I’ve been able to say is “it depends”. It’s hard to test because we can’t rerun the same stories the next day to a new batch of people, but I could tell that content mattered a lot more than promotion. The same story would obviously do better if it was well promoted, but a good story could be buried and still be one of the site’s top stories that day. In fact, that happens quite a lot.

Editors know this. If they see a story they know will be a click magnet, they can decide not to promote it because they know it’ll get a lot of readers anyway. Especially when it’ll appear in the most popular box anyway, which for a lot of sites is pretty high up on the homepage.

6. What readers want, vs what they click on – A news websites metrics are great because they show you what people actually read, vs what they say they read and want to read. It was a surprise to me when I switched from newspapers to online to see the difference.

But this raises an interesting point – When you click on a story, are you really saying you want to read that? In the literal sense you are of course, but if my favourite news websites just served up stories about Charlie Sheen (which I would click on, because I can’t help myself. Also because I’m bi-winning), I’d switch to other news websites. I don’t really want that kind of news chucked in my face because I know I don’t have time for that. I want to know what’s going on in my patch. But after self-righteously reading the “real” news that day, I’ll indulge in a few silly, time-wasting clicks.

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