Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The pitfalls of short-term thinking

Knowing what audiences say they want and what they are chasing is a useful tool for news judgment, but it should not be the sole driver of content. As Tom Rosenstiel mentions in my book, news is what hasn't happened yet, and there's no backward-looking research that can tell you what content will be useful or desired going forward. More to the point, audiences/readers/citizens can't ask for something they don't know is there.

That's why this column on Web hits at the Project for Excellence in Journalism site is so important.

To quote Jim Brady:

I was pretty confident that a story about the celebrity meltdown du jour would get more traffic than our story on President Obama’s current thinking on the Department of Agriculture. But The Washington Post’s bread and butter is coverage of the federal government, politics, diplomacy, national security, local news and local sports, not national entertainment news. To put it another way: If The Washington Post decided to promote stories on its home page based purely on traffic potential, what makes it unique would quickly evaporate.

And, his example originally quoted by Romenesko:

There was nothing in our traffic history to suggest that stories about military veterans were of particular interest to our readers. But when Dana Priest and Anne Hull uncovered the poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Hospital, the story went global in hours. That kind of journalism will be increasingly at risk if we get too caught up in the race for page views.

The search for the silver bullet is one of the reasons, to mix a metaphor, that journalists have been chasing their tails for the last several years. The most successful content isn't the kind that follows an audience; it's the kind that creates an audience.


  1. Hi-
    I think the link to your book is broken. I'm considering using it for a class ... Would I be able to get a copy to preview? Thanks!

  2. Sheila,

    Thanks for your interest. My publisher, Marion Street Press, was recently sold, and they apparently broke the old links. I've linked to my page at amazon.com now. You can order a review copy by clicking on the book at www.marionstreetpress.com, which will send you to the distributor, which apparently gives educators half off and then refunds the balance if you order the book for your class.