Alex Massie

The End of the Days of Unread Copy

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My pal Mike Crowley's (good!) New Republic piece on Hillary's tough press operation is drawing lots of attention from the blogosphere. It's a reminder that the subject hacks and bloggers like best is, well, stories about hacks and bloggers. I daresay it's doing wonders for TNR's web traffic today. Which reminds me that this ability to see and measure what people are reading in real time is going to have an enormous impact on journalism in the future. I'm not sure people - readers and hacks alike - necessarily fully appreciate that yet.

In the past newspaper management have relied upon focus groups and reader surveys to find out what folk actually like. But of course, readers lie: they will claim that they read all the meaty foreign coverage and the editorials and the reporting on legal matters and all the rest of it. But most of them don't. They like the idea of this stuff but they can't stir themselves to actually read it. The question for newspapers - from an accounting point of view - is how much of this expensive, little-read copy they can dispense with before they undermine their brand to the point where readers think their intelligence is (sometimes rightly) being insulted. I don't really care about Darfur, they say, but if I did I like being able to read about it in my morning paper. Being able to do so confirms my view of myself as a serious person. As I have said before, this is The Virtue of Unread Copy. The same may be said of, say, classical music critics or book sections. In many respects these too are loss leaders for newspapers: a necessary price of doing business. Collectively these ego-stroking (for the reader though also, of course, for the editor and publisher) elements have contributed to the overall health and credibility of the newspaper. Until now, of course.

In the digital, individual, future, there's no real need for such a comprehensive newspaper product. Content aggregators and the distributed brilliance of the internet will  personalise everything for us. Newspapers will cease to be a status symbol that tells us, however clumsily, what sort of person the reader is. For readers this is cool: you can plunder the world for the best content. It's a little less cheery for newspapers.

I know of at least one (non-US) paper where real-time web traffic figures play a role in shaping editorial decisions - at least in terms of prominence issues. That will only continue and more and more print editions will be influenced by web traffic as stories are published on the web hours before they become available in print (at least for as long as print editions continue to exist). So the boffins will analyse traffic data and note that past stories about Issue X have brought in 7% more traffic than ones about Issue Y; therefore we're going with Issue Y. Editing by numbers, quite literally.

There are upsides to this, of course: you can provide stuff you know readers actually want to read. On the other hand, it's likely to limit creative thinking and it will take strong - and unusually gifted and perceptive - editors to resist the sirens of the web traffic stats. Or rather, those that can marry the data analysis with original thinking that breaks out of a formula will be the most impressive (from a journalistic point of view at least  - though possibly also commercially speaking). They'll also be the ones whose hunches - or luck - get them ahead of the market in terms of perceiving what the coming stories are likely to be.

That also means that journalism may also come to be more and more like prospecting. Punditry already is, of course: no-one bothers to remember the 100 times you were wrong but you get to make your reputation on the back of the one 100/1 shot that actually, miraculously, came in. A long career in television is your punishment reward.

It's all very exciting and depressing. So much so in fact, that further considerations will have to wait. It's tea-time.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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