Quality versus quantity. The perennial tension, in journalism as in all things, applies not merely to news outlets’ content, but to their audiences, as well. Speaking last week at Medill, Slate editor David Plotz laid out a compelling case that outlets should focus less on mere traffic—quantity—and more on the commitment of readers—quality.

As Michele McLellan, currently on a Reynolds fellowship at the school, reports: “More sophisticated ways of measuring usership and engagement will change focus from mass audience, Plotz believes, and that will make journalism better.”

Raw numbers create “pressure to produce one kind of story” that will draw hits. New metrics of engagement and behavior offer a “tremendous opportunity for Web journalism to escape the traffic” trap. He believes that will liberate Slate to “make a magazine that recognizes those dedicated readers.”

“Until now we’ve been selling to the mass audience. Now once you have this abiltity [sic] to target you can really target your core audience… This creates strong incentive to create durable journalism,” Plotz said. “That one curious reader is worth 50 times the value of the drive-by reader. The person who makes a commitment to your brand, if you’re a quality brand….. if you can get those readers, a smaller set of readers, who come to you three or five or 10 times a week, you don’t have to go after that huge other set of readers.”

So forget celebrity and outrage stories. For Slate, this focus means a commitment to long form journalism such as a recent series on the American dental crisis, which Plotz estimates was read by 400,000 people. Slate has started a “Fresca Fellowship” that requires each reporter and editor to spend a month each year on a long form journalism project. Advertisers have begun to sponsor specific projects and they are paying for themselves, he said.

“Advertisers want to be around some ambitious project more than they want to be around some snarky political column,” Plotz said.

Quality long-form journalism leading to smaller-but-committed audiences leading to fewer-but-highly-targeted-and-therefore-valuable ads? Could be just crazy enough to work.

[via Jay Rosen]

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.