In the life of a newspaper writer, mood swings are common. Turn a couple of good stories for the front page, and it’s a good week. It’s maybe not so good if it’s a week of mundane stories that land deep on the inside pages. I’ve been on both ends during my career.
Today, the difference between a good and bad week could depend on the number of online clicks attached to a reporter’s stories. A generous number of clicks means all is well. Consistent low numbers could mean a visit to the editor’s office to discuss what’s wrong.
That’s a new world to me. In my reporting days, which began on manual typewriters, there was no talk about “digital clicks.” Advanced technology meant converting to electric typewriters.
With digital clicks, everyone in the newsroom – from reporters to executives – can find out in an instant how many people are reading the stories, and even how long they are staying with the stories. Investigative pieces tend to play well in the digital world, according to Christina Lords, editor of the Idaho Statesman.
“If people are willing to read a 3,000-word story, it’s a comfort to me knowing that people are willing to stay with the story,” she says.
Not everyone is a fan of using clicks as a measurement.
“I view chasing digital dreams as a serious threat to the profession of journalism,” says Mike Patrick, editor of the Coeur d’Alene Press. “If we adhered to what attracts digital eyeballs, we would be focused on crime, entertainment and weird news. All of that has its place, but in our company, it’s a small fraction of the information we routinely provide to help citizens lead better lives. Local politics, schools, city councils, local health/medical news, local sports, important local events and feature stories about local people doing interesting things are what we focus on most.”
Matt Davison, publisher of the Nampa-based Idaho Press, combines a popular industry tool (Poynter) with in-house analytics to measure such things as audience engagement and brand loyalty. “We do not measure in clicks in any way,” he said.
Steve Smith, an assistant communications professor at the University of Idaho and former longtime editor and reporter, says newspapers can effectively mix the new with the old.
“The digital world gives us the best tools we’ve ever had in our business to understand how readers relate to our journalism. If you ignore that, then it’s at your peril. But you also can apply more subjective standards, such as quality and reasonable expectation based on the beat and assignments.”
One thing that hasn’t changed is the burning desire to provide quality journalism.
“With fewer resources, we have to be judicious about how to spend our time and how to present the stories,” Lords said. “Going to a city council meeting and reporting on everything is a waste of our time and resources. If we can provide investigation that has a broader impact, isn’t that what we should be doing, rather than marking time?”
With political coverage, overall readership interest has been always mixed. Political junkies eat it up, while others turn the page. Lords says the challenge is staying relevant to the broader audience. “The days of five reporters at the statehouse are gone, so we have to decide how we focus on things that really matter,” she said. “People want to know how it affects them and their pocketbooks, so we go after those stories.”
Traditional readership surveys are not always accurate. Readers will say they want more stories about education and what kids are doing in schools. But those stories don’t tend to get a high number of hits. “Our analytics tell us that people want breaking news, local sports and investigations.”
As Smith reminds me, the newsroom that he and I knew back in the “good-old days” does not exist. Lords knows that survival of newspapers depends on changing with the times.
“I’m 33 years old. If I want to keep doing this – and I do – then we’ve got to be cognizant of how people are consuming the news,” she said. “The core of what we do is the same. People come into this building because they care. We’re still not paid enough; we still work crazy hours; people love us and hate us. But people here still care about journalism and covering their community. As long as they are willing to do that, then I’m all in.”
I love this crazy business.
Chuck Malloy, a long-time Idaho journalist, is a columnist with Idaho Politics Weekly. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.