Learning to Love Traffic Metrics

I read James Fallows’ piece “Learning to Love the (Shallow, Divisive, Unreliable) New Media” on the plane yesterday, and thought it was pretty great. He offers a tour d’horizon of the emerging economics of the media business, discusses problems, delivers a little much-needed Real Talk about the good old days, and raises some hopes for the future.

But there’s one aspect of this where I wanted to press harder for webtimism than Fallows does. That’s specifically on the merits of a system where you can actually tell who’s reading your articles. Fallows emphasizes, citing Nick Denton, that in a competitive metric-rich landscape your incentives tend to point away from highbrow “important” stuff toward lowbrow mush:

Of course, Denton was omitting good-for-you, public-service-style stories for outrageous effect. In my first “interview” with him for this story, conducted over the course of nearly an hour through an instant-message exchange, he said that a market-minded approach like his would solve the business problem of journalism—but only for “a certain kind of journalism.” It worked perfectly, he said, for topics like those his sites covered: gossip, technology, sex talk, and so on. And then, as an aside: “But not the worthy topics. Nobody wants to eat the boring vegetables. Nor does anyone want to pay [via advertising] to encourage people to eat their vegetables.”

Sad. And to a large extent true. But the thing that I think journalists sometimes forget is that the point of writing on worthy topics is presumably to get people to read stories on worthy topics. In the print world, I think people got too complacent about the idea of reporting out a worthy story, plopping it on page A3, and forgetting about it. Was anyone actually reading that story? It’s not clear to me that they were. On the web if you want people to read worthy journalism it’s made clear that this is actually a two-step process. First you have to produce the worthy content, and then you have to get someone to read the worthy content. That’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge those of us interested in writing on subjects we think are important ought to welcome and attempt to meet.

That may mean that people who write on worthy subjects earn less, long-term, than people who write about other things. But at the same time, it’s more pleasant to do meaningful work so why shouldn’t that be the case? And part of what it means is that people in the “writing about important things” business need to roll up our sleeves and try harder to make our output compelling to people. If an article about the school board falls in the middle of the wilderness and nobody reads it, it doesn’t actually make an impact.