Journalism and customer service

Do we serve democracy or consumers?

Let’s face it: The bulk of journalism produced is inessential. This isn’t to say it’s not valuable, just that the bulk of what appears in America’s newspapers, magazines, airwaves, and media sites is not exposing government waste or corporate misdeeds.

Despite the characterization of this fact as a digital-era problem, this was always the case. It’s just that the internet has drawn out what was always an inherent tension for journalists: Do we provide a public service or do we provide customer service? Are we watchdogs of democracy, putting forth important work that holds the powerful accountable and keeps the public informed so it can take meaningful democratic action? Or are we creating a product designed to appeal to consumers?

In a Businessweek excerpt from his new book about Jeff Bezos, biographer Brad Stone emphasizes the Washington Post owner’s devotion to customer service. In a recent visit to the Post newsroom, Bezos told the staff that his number-one rule for content was “Don’t be boring.”

Of course, this view is not incompatible with producing important work. The best investigative journalism is certainly not boring. But it’s also undeniable that enticing readers and responding to their interests hasn’t historically been a top priority in edit meetings. Consider some journalists’ sneering dismissal of Most Read lists as showcases for lowest-common-denominator editorial content.

This reader-baiting approach to delivering important news was recently on display in The New York Timesprofile of Upworthy, a site “whose goal is to make more serious content as fun to share” as the mindless memes that dominate most Facebook feeds. In other words, Upworthy seeks to apply a consumer-centric approach to the sort of content deemed important by more traditional outlets. And it’s working.

“Only 19 months old, the site has experienced explosive growth,” the Times reports; “it is 41st on Quantcast’s rankings of most popular American Internet sites, above both Fox News and the Yellow Pages, and attracted more than 38 million unique visitors in September, according to its own Google analytics report.”

Upworthy’s model is based on virality—shorthand for social-media shares. And many of those shares translate into returning readers. A new study from the analytics tool Chartbeat finds that, while consumers who go directly to the homepage are more likely to stick around longer and to return, many of those who come from Twitter or Facebook also return to read more in the future. Which means that a percentage of those clicks translate to recurring readers—something that sites like Gawker have long realized but traditional outlets have been slower to grasp. Yes, people who come directly to the homepage are likely to be your most loyal readers. But that doesn’t mean the link-baited can’t be enticed to stick around.

Journalists have long worried that the clickbait Upworthy model—essentially, a customer-centric Bezos approach—is at odds with the democracy-preserving Woodward and Bernstein style. But the truth is readers contain multitudes. Just because they’re initially lured by a link to celebrity gossip doesn’t mean they won’t come back to read an investigative report.

Producing a wide variety of content that’s important to readers, including stuff that’s inessential to the functioning of our democratic society, is probably the sweet spot. It’s what a lot of media startups—like the much-maligned new women’s site, Bustle—say they’re trying to do. But there’s no reason why some of the oldest and most respected outlets in the business, such as Bezos’ Washington Post, couldn’t also embrace this attitude. Given that, unlike the upstarts, they have ample experience producing hard-news reporting, they’re in a perfect position to provide a public service along with the customer service.

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Ann Friedman is a magazine editor who loves the internet. She lives in Los Angeles Tags: #Realtalk