Making the online customer king at The Post

In a past era, there was little need to share marketing information with The Post’s newsroom. Profits were high. Circulation was robust. Editors decided what they thought readers needed, not necessarily what they wanted.

But in today’s newsroom, with its relentless online focus, editors get hourly reports on traffic to The Post’s Web site. When audience numbers dip below goals, devices are employed to draw visitors. Photos of Anna Chapman serve as a magnet for those searching for news about the attractive Russian spy. A photo gallery from Lindsay Lohan‘s tearful court appearance creates a traffic bump (a click on each image counts as a page view). A gimmicky, unscientific “Post User Poll” invites readers to vote on Lohan’s jail term. Search requests from across the vast Web are monitored so editors know what users want most. One day last week, the hot search term was “LeBron.” Editors made sure the home page featured NBA superstar LeBron James as he prepared to announce which team he would join.

In the Internet age, readers rule. And with The Post’s future so dependent on growing its Web audience, why shouldn’t the customer be king?

But this relentless focus on giving readers what they want has exposed confusion and concern within The Post’s newsroom about journalistic standards. Many Web-focused staffers are more inclined to post a story that is not fully verified, simply because it’s the buzz on the Web and will draw traffic. Veterans, steeped in a print culture, worry that a fixation on traffic-driving celebrities will cheapen The Post brand and lessen its commitment to public service journalism. If traffic ends up guiding coverage, they wonder, will The Post choose not to pursue some important stories because they’re “dull”?

Ken Doctor, a Web-savvy news industry analyst, said using data to determine reader desires is invaluable. But “important to me, as someone who cares about journalism, is that these new tools not be left to those who don’t have a public-service aspect to their business.”

Raju Narisetti, the managing editor in charge of the Web site, insisted The Post’s “brand and its ethics and rigor” are secure. He noted that expanding the audience exposes more people to The Post’s journalism, including its ambitious investigative projects. And he correctly cautioned that The Post’s “ability to fund and do good journalism is ultimately at risk” if it isn’t supported by a viable, sustainable online business.

The Post’s newspaper circulation has been steadily eroding while its online audience has remained flat in recent years. Increasing the Web audience is critical to attracting advertising to offset declines in print revenue. The Post has set an ambitious October goal of boosting online traffic 25 percent from a year earlier. Through June, total unique visitors were up 16.7 percent for the year.

From inside Narisetti’s glass-fronted office, a large computer screen constantly updates Web data for the staff to see. This “Daily Trending Report” shows about 100 measurements of Post online traffic for everything from stories to videos to blogs. Green arrows, pointing up, indicate gains. Red arrows, pointing down, signal declines. The pressure to hit targets is unrelenting. That’s what is fueling newsroom concern about standards.

Journalistic contrivances, such as celebrity photo galleries or cooked-up stories speculating whether Britain’s Prince William will marry, strike me as relatively harmless.

Of more concern is the view that partially reported stories can be posted online because, if inaccurate, they can be quickly updated or revised. Yet there’s some logic to doing this. Unlike newspapers, the Web is continuously updating and self-correcting. And if readers can’t reliably find hot-topic stories on The Post’s site, they’ll go elsewhere.

Online executive producer Katharine Zaleski said that “we should be as sure as we can be” before posting a story. But, she added, it’s critical that The Post’s site carry “what’s being talked about” even if stories aren’t fully developed.

That approach, at odds with traditional journalism, reflects the reality that newsrooms are moving into uncharted territory where online standards must evolve.

My advice to The Post: Lead the discussion.

There should be robust newsroom dialogue, of course. But as Doctor suggests, readers also should be invited into the conversation. On its site, The Post should explain how it uses metrics to shape content. Armed with that knowledge, readers can offer feedback.

The Post wants to know as much as possible about what its Web readers want. That should include what they think about preserving time-honored standards and ethics in the online world.

This column was originally published in the Washington Post on July 11, 2010.

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