I have covered education for the last 13 years—three of them as a New Orleans schools beat writer for the Times-Picayune. During the last two years, I worked limited hours at the newspaper, editing on Saturdays and contributing occasional stories on education, a position that will end when the transition to digital occurs in the fall. While I do not plan to apply for a new position at the NOLA Media Group, I think often about what the changes could mean for the newspaper, the community, and my talented colleagues, particularly if pageviews drive coverage and compensation to a significant extent. For this reason, I collaborated with Cathy Hughes, an online editor at the Times-Picayune, to compile and analyze data showing which stories receive the most pageviews. The data left me with two big fears.
First, if existing click patterns drove coverage, the newspaper would write almost exclusively about the dead, the dying, and the overpaid. New Orleanians would read about two tiny, polarized slivers of society: The fantastically wealthy and privileged sports stars and celebrities (particularly the white celebrities); and the fantastically violent criminals and their unfortunate victims (particularly the white victims). As they did in June, the big sports and crime stories almost always generate the most clicks. Stories about education, healthcare, and the overwhelmingly majority of poor people who do not kill anyone receive comparatively few.
Exceptions will always exist. In June, for instance, the opening salvo of a deeply reported May series on Louisiana’s prisons, by (departing) Times-Picayune staff member Cindy Chang, continued to be one of nola.com’s most visited stories. And an elegant feature on a former Louisiana pastor’s conversion to “non-belief,” written by (laid off) religion writer Bruce Nolan, also made the list. Bloggers went wild over that one. (Indeed, if you do not write about crime or sports, one of the best ways to inflate clicks is to get the most extreme bloggers or tweeters in your field to post links.)
The most-viewed stories included little about the universal experiences of living, working, loving, voting, getting sick, going to school, and worshiping (or not worshiping), in a complicated—and frequently unjust—world. They documented societal extremes. If such coverage were prioritized, we would be left with two visions of New Orleans: one focused almost entirely on the city’s theme park qualities and the other on its horrific violence; one describing a culture of escapism and the other a culture of degradation; one obsessed with wealth and the other with suffering. We would know all there is to know about Drew Brees’s contract and the most sensational of the city’s homicides, but much less about everything else.
My second overarching concern with clicks-driven local journalism—which I hope, like the first, will remain hypothetical—is the impact it could have on specific beats. Even if the new organization maintains its commitment to a subject like education, as company leaders have pledged to do, a metrics driven approach could still prove disastrous.
Articles about suburban and private schools, as well as higher education, receive more clicks on average than those about the New Orleans public schools, home to one of the country’s most controversial and consequential efforts to remake an urban school system. In June, for instance, seven of nola.com’s top 10 viewed education stories were about suburban Jefferson Parish. (Rounding out the top 10 were a piece about a leadership change at a private school; one on new research out of Tulane University; and a third on the discovery of 20,000-year-old pottery in a Chinese cave.)