Opinion

Commentary: Is this the newsroom of the future?

"Tacked to the newsroom walls in AOL's downtown Manhattan headquarters are pages and pages of web-traffic data.

The numbers tell the growing number of journalists who work there how well their articles are performing and — thanks to the ads that appear alongside them — who's paying the bills."

Welcome to what AOL calls "the newsroom of the future," as profiled in the BusinessWeek feature last week quoted above.

AOL's approach to meshing news with commerce is an advanced example of an emerging practice I referred to in 2008 as "calibrated journalism." Not that it took much foresight to see this coming, nor is it surprising that the former America Online — freed from its calamitous union with Time Warner — has embraced this market-besotted strategy in hopes of building a web-based, stand-alone news organization with global reach and scope.

When I warned two years ago about the direction online news seemed to be going, some readers objected that my complaints showed why traditional news was on the rocks: I was spouting the obsolete, arrogant insistence typical of the old-guard journalist, who believes editors can dictate taste to their readers and that news organizations can thrive even if they refuse to listen and heed.

In fact, the calibrated news model that we're seeing now isn't really about keeping readers satisfied. It's about keeping some readers satisfied. Counting up readers doesn't pay the bills, ad revenues do.

That means the readers have to be people advertisers want to pitch to.

The new model will enable news managers to figure out how profitable a particular story is. Calculating costs isn't hard and, now, thanks to behavioral tracking, advertisers can measure and profile the audience for that story and determine how much renting space alongside it is worth. Add up how much the story brings in, subtract costs from revenues and you have an indication of profit per story.

More important, news managers can see how certain topics have performed and get a pretty good idea how remunerative continuing coverage will be. It'll be possible to consult something very much like a profit-and-loss statement before deciding whether to assign a story. Already, AOL is considering sharing a piece of its own profits with reporters whose work draws the greatest traffic.

Now, it's tempting to quote Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. And I'm enough of a traditionalist to believe that editorial responsibility means making sober-minded decisions about chasing down publicly significant news and making sure it's presented to a public that, given the choice, might rather read about how to open a bottle of champagne or pack for a weekend getaway (two AOL crowd-pleasers mentioned in the BusinessWeek story.)

So calibrated journalism feels like a capitulation to the foolishness of the marketplace and a surefire recipe for ignoring and further marginalizing people and realities that don't promise clear payoffs to advertisers.

But I'm enough of a realist to understand that once data on profit-and-loss is available for particular kinds of coverage, it'll be impossible — and risky — to ignore.

And no traditional newsroom boss, no matter how grizzled and contemptuous of popular taste our folklore imagines he was, would have ignored those numbers if he'd had them.

What to do? That's not clear. But I think you start by shedding the illusion that these metrics fully measure what readers "want," and that ignoring traffic data means dismissing the public's wishes.

Readers "want" many things. Yes, they want engaging, useful, clever, provocative items, the ones that ended up on refrigerator fronts and nowadays are linked to via e-mail or Twitter.

But readers have other wants, too, more imperative ones, which traffic numbers and advertiser support may reflect poorly. They want clean government, safe streets and honest businesses.

They want somebody to keep an eye on public doings undertaken in their name and to let them know if the trust they place in powerful individuals and institutions is warranted. Those too are wants.

These calibration metrics are fairly new, and it sounds as if AOL is still going through the infatuation stage familiar to the freshly enamored. An early temptation will be to hand over editorial decision-making to the snazzy new metrics, and let numbers determine the news lineup.

But one of the lessons of such technologies is that much as we might think they relieve people of the need to make hard choices, they really don't. Technologies may clarify options, but it's people who are left with the toughest of jobs: weighing values, deciding what matters, exercising judgment.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University.

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