Search engines are still a major driver of traffic. In fact, according to Pew, search remains the second-largest source of website traffic coming from the population as a whole, trailing behind direct visits to homepages and far ahead of social media. “Nobody sees what you search for,” notes Peretti, so it’s the best way to find anything that’s “less socially acceptable”—anything relating to sex, for example, or one’s medical ailments.
Peretti, of course, is a big believer in the salutary effects of social media on journalism. Writing for search engines led to notoriously gimmicky and unilluminating pieces such as HuffPost’s infamous 2011 “What Time Does the Superbowl Start,” an empty page designed to capitalize on people searching for the Super Bowl’s kickoff time (and yes, the title of the event was intentionally styled incorrectly to catch more search traffic). But people share only what they think is worth looking at. Say what you will about pictures of cats overlaid with ungrammatical phrases—but at least they go viral because Internet users actually find them funny.
The emphasis on sharing may result in even more soft, feel-good material. As the Times reported in May, “By scanning people’s brains and tracking their emails and online posts, neuroscientists and psychologists have found that good news can spread faster and farther than disasters and sob stories.” Jonah Berger, a social psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the Times: “When you share a story with your friends and peers, you care a lot more how they react. You don’t want them to think of you as a Debbie Downer.”
Advertisers want to avoid that, too. “Whenever I hear from ad sales, it’s, ‘I want to be around positive news,’ and most news isn’t positive,” says Alex Leo. “That’s why we’ve seen The New York Times Style section expand to two days a week, and so much more health content and blogs about parenting. It’s the same with HuffPo.”
What might they want next?
Some analysts believe that young people are no less trusting of high-quality news brands than were previous generations. “Mistrust is not necessarily any stronger than it used to be, when you adjust for life stage,” argues danah boyd, 35, a senior researcher at Microsoft Research (her formal name is lowercase). “Adults have a different level of trust than teenagers.” Baby Boomers, too, were suspicious of mainstream media when they were younger (remember Abbie Hoffman’s famous admonition not to trust anyone over 30?). As they mature, today’s teenagers may develop trust for certain news sources, but perhaps not the ones their parents favored.
The New York Times, hoping to remain one of those brands, is already targeting the next generation. In February, the newspaper revealed that it is prototyping a pared-down digital subscription offering—with less content and at a lower price point—intended to appeal to teens and twentysomethings.