Is the news behaving more like advertising?

When The Wall Street Journal set out to redesign its digital products, it changed more than the look of its website. The paper is forming teams of engineers, designers, and reporters, adapting their content to mobile and social platforms, making their news experiences more personal, and bringing analytics into the editorial department. In other words, it’s changing the essence of the newsroom.

Similar changes are happening at newspapers around the country. As users continue to discover stories through search and social instead of through homepages, news organizations are stepping up their efforts to track where those users are going and how they’re behaving. They’re moving to meet them where they are, and to deliver them content across a range of devices, especially mobile.

On one hand, this means that news organizations like the Wall Street Journal are getting smarter, more attuned to the digital ecosystem, and more focused on their users, which may be good for business. On the other hand, the push to personalize the news involves a degree of targeting and profiling based on how users behave. It’s creating an environment in which readers are discovering the news, but the news is also finding them. Just as ads are increasingly mimicking editorial content, the news is coming under increasing pressure to borrow some of the logic and tools of advertisers.

This is especially true for mobile, “which is one of the most personalized forms of content delivery right now,” Allen Klosowski, vice president of the video advertising platform SpotXchange, said in a video for the American Press Institute. “Cookies don’t work in mobile environments, so moving into utilization of first party data is critical in order to segment those audiences and deliver them to buyers.” On the heels of this logic, journalist Jeff Sonderman has argued that “the only way for publishers to compete effectively in mobile is if they possess and exchange the same kind of detailed targeting data about their individual audience members.” He put the matter bluntly: “Any publisher with no data to target ads is at the bottom of the food chain.”

These days, that’s exactly where a lot of publishers are sitting—especially publishers of small local newspapers. Even the savviest digital news natives are way behind Google, Facebook, and Amazon, which have been amassing data on users for years through demographic targeting. And the fact that modeling the news, predicting what a reader will click on or linger on next, is much more complex than modeling what book a user is likely to buy, doesn’t help. Yet newsrooms may be (slowly) catching up. Using tools like Chartbeat, Visual Revenue, and Google Analytics, editors and reporters are increasingly attuned to the logic of circulation. With more metrics at their fingertips, they’re getting better at profiling who their readers are and how they can be reached.

“Where did they come from? Do they stick around on our site? Do they look at other articles? How long do they spend looking at our stuff? When they come back, do they come back directly to us or do they come back through Drudge again? It’s that sort of mapping the flow of the users behavior,” said Caitlin Petre, a sociologist who spent months at The New York Times and Gawker, studying how they used analytics in the context of their newsrooms. “Are newsrooms going to behave more like advertisers, in terms of targeting particular types of content for particular types of readers? I think we will see more of that.”

This could be a boon to editorial. By knowing where eyeballs are going, journalists can tailor their content, measure the impact of their stories, and unpack complicated subjects like ISIS or Obamacare with greater nuance and agility.

“You could say, ‘Here’s where people’s eyeballs are, how do we make them look somewhere else for a minute?’” said Mike Ananny, an assistant professor of communication at the USC Annenberg School for Communication, who has been interviewing designers and journalists working in what he calls the “liminal press”—the space where technology and journalism overlap. “If you want to use the press to make change in the world, you’ve got to signal to the power makers, ‘Look, here’s all the people that are looking at [our] story about corruption.’”

It could also be good for business. If news organizations can deliver content to readers based on what they tend to consume, they may be able to make content so good that readers are willing to pay for it, as they do for Netflix. At a time when journalism is being unbundled and distributed piece by piece, premium content could be a tool to build brand loyalty. That would be a boon to organizations like The New York Times, for whom subscriptions still account for a substantial portion of revenue.

“The advertising model is broken, so those organizations will have to build content that is based around the user, rather than the advertiser,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and editor-in-chief of The International Journal of Press/Politics.

The downside of personalization is more than just reporters chasing clicks—it’s demographically targeted news. Nielsen worries that if news were to be targeted based on income, gender, or race, it could create a new set of biases in journalism. To Ananny, the extent to which newsrooms could go in the name of “audience engagement” and “brand loyalty” could have an insidious effect on public trust.

“If you and I went to nytimes.com or latimes.com and saw different things—not because they think we should see different things but because they’re going to get money based on showing us different things—that’s a moment when news organizations need to be super careful,” Ananny said. “That’s when personalization is going to be viewed more through this insidious lens of trying to maximize me as a reader, as oppose to a citizen or member of the public.”

Facebook, of course, has gone much further down this road than any news organization. “I don’t know of a news organization that’s doing that kind of very specific targeting in a way that’s anywhere near the level of sophistication of Facebook,” sociologist Petre says. “They’re the one driving [the trend to make] news more like ads, presenting particular types of stuff to particular types of people.”

Ananny agrees, saying, “You’ve got this really tight coupling between the advertising logic and the algorithm thats going to show you something or not show you something” based on your personal information. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing, except that we have zero understanding of how this Facebook algorithm works.”

That has major implications for news organizations that are moving to partner with Facebook. On one hand, it’s a chance to market their content more broadly—but they’ll be relying on Facebook to determine who gets to see it. For Ananny, this raises uncomfortable questions.

“Will news organizations get access to all of the rich metadata associated with Facebook content? Does it matter if a New York Times story about oil industry regulation sits alongside an add for Exxon-Mobile? Would a news story about a pro-life rally be allowed to appear alongside a pro-choice story?” Ananny wondered. “News organizations have historically thought carefully about design, in terms of newspaper and websites. Do you show people different stories not because of personalization metrics but because of revenue-generating metrics? Is that part of your logic?”

As the news continues to adapt to mobile and social platforms—and to get more personalized—these are the kinds of questions that news organizations should be asking.

Damaris Colhoun is CJR's digital correspondent covering the media business. A reporter at large in New York, Colhoun has also written for The Believer, The New York Times, The Guardian, and Atlas Obscura. Find her on Twitter @damarisdeere.