A Question of Velocity

In the pursuit of traffic, we'd do well to think before we post

The world of journalism is convulsed with matters of online traffic—how to get it, how to keep it, how to measure it. Traffic is the new circulation, and is considered central to the slow and uneven migration of the advertising-revenue model from print to digital. And just as the circulation equation can produce strategies that detract from the quality of the journalism, the traffic equation must wrestle with those same pressures—but in a different arena.

Competition for eyeballs is exaggerated in a media environment where content is carved into ever-more specific slices and readers are acculturated to graze. Two strategies for corralling readers that have always been part of the press’s competitive landscape—titillation and scoops—are also exaggerated in the digital world. On the titillation front, the wasted airspace that infects cable TV news has moved to the Web. On any given day, CNN.com or MSNBC.com or Foxnews.com, as Jack Shafer recently noted in Slate, feels compelled to deliver—prominently alongside reports out of Kenya or from the campaign trail—stories such as girls gang-raped, forced to be sex slaves; video: trains turn car into fireball; granny locks boy in cage, says he poisoned her, and so on. These get eyeballs, of course, but at a cost.

Meanwhile, if genuine scoops in the digital age are a good thing, the new notion of being first is more complicated, and at its worst, becomes a full-scale surrender to the idea that just because the Web makes it possible to publish constantly, you must. Being “in the conversation” can mean multiple posts a day, no editing, and little reflection. We’re not disputing the evidence that indicates publishing quickly and regularly brings traffic, any more than we would argue that a two-thousand-word explainer on the delegate-counting process will outdraw coroner’s deputy: as body hanged, i ran errands. But the question of what makes sense—journalistically—in this fast-as-you-can medium is hardly a no-brainer.

Every kind of news outlet is wrestling with these speed-versus-quality questions, including us here at CJR as we try to build our Web site with limited resources. So we read with interest the first case study being taught in the Columbia journalism school’s new course, based on teaching cases, which concerns these very questions. The Bakersfield Californian has been a pioneer in digital journalism, and when its editors asked their court reporter, Jessica Logan, to live-blog a major murder trial, in addition to her daily and Sunday stories, it seemed a logical next step in the paper’s evolution as—in the words of Executive Editor Mike Jenner—a “platform-agnostic, multi-channel, disseminator of stuff.”

Logan’s blog did bring readers, as her editors had predicted. Still, many of her initial concerns became genuine problems. The demand of filing multiple updates throughout the day—at one point her editors asked for a post every ten minutes—as well as keeping track of the time of key moments in the testimony so that a videotape of the proceedings could be quickly edited for the Web, made it difficult for Logan to follow the nuances of the trial. To save time, her editors asked her to post directly to the site, rather than pass her blog items through even a cursory edit. Grammatical and spelling errors crept in, and eventually factual errors turned up, too. Readers noticed: “Maybe the Californian has a 6th grader on staff now,” one wrote. Logan worried that the demands of the blog undercut her credibility.

This magazine has long argued that doing journalism well is a difficult job, and that it usually requires more, not less, time between the birth of a story idea and its publication. Speed and quantity are integral to the Internet’s competitive advantage, but they aren’t the sum of it. And it isn’t at all clear to us that it is always better to simply be in the conversation, for better or worse, than to wait until you have something worth saying. 

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.