Discussions around journalism ethics — such as at the recent “Truth and Trust” event co-produced by MediaShift and Poynter — usually revolve around classic editorial issues, such as verification, sourcing and discerning truth from facts.
Yet, changing technologies and business practices are raising new quandaries as well. The tensions caused by the need to attract eyeballs and make money from them — and the means for measuring, tracking and influencing them — reach deeper into the organization than ever.
Here, then, are some of the issues that reporters, editors and managers need to understand, based on my experience and conversations with various executives at large and small outfits.
The Allure of the Metric
With space “above the fold” (shown in the first screen of a landing page on a computer or mobile device) limited, and every page or video view equaling more revenue, most if not all top editors working in digital media have grappled with how to attract more visitors, turn more page views, get more videos watched, get visitors to come back, and to find ways to land more followers and signups for social media and newsletters.
The temptation to place the click-worthy ahead of the newsworthy can influence what’s highlighted, and what’s covered, and the tools we have today tell us in some details what is getting the clicks.
In previous jobs, as a managing producer and editorial director, I have at times allocated reporters to cover what was popular, if not the most newsworthy. I have participated in deadly serious discussions about how to make every photo in a slideshow register another click — and therefore another page view with advertising. I once was ordered to keep from posting a serious but unattractive international story atop a major site’s home page during high traffic hours.
In the day-to-day, it’s easy to make the decisions and move on, but the efforts, over time, can change or distort the tenor of the news and how it’s presented.
After CNN last summer featured Miley Cyrus’ twerking on their home page, The Onion satirically took them to task in the guise of a top CNN editor explaining why that was the most important news of the day.
Top news portals — such as Yahoo and AOL — employ editors whose jobs are to manage headline and image placements to secure the highest levels of clickthrough possible.
Sure, editors have forever argued about what to place on their front pages, but they now have measurement tools that provide almost instantaneous information on what’s looked at, searched and linked to.
For instance, real-time media measurement tool Chartbeat “can be incredibly seductive for journalists, who want to keep selecting stories they believe will be popular based on what the dashboard is telling them,” Digiday CEO Nick Friese told me last week. “We’ve actually started to pull back a bit on that, to add more of the human element to story selection.”
One huge influence on the story selection is on what level the organization demands profitability. Does every page or section have to garner enough revenue to defray the cost of producing it? Or can the sections with higher revenue per page — typically health, tech, finance and fashion — float the less advertiser-friendly war coverage and investigative reports?
The Influence of the Algorithm
The technological imperatives of the most powerful distribution platforms can also dictate what is covered and how it’s presented.
Journalists able to present their news in ways that attract the biggest followings from the biggest purveyors of traffic can be hugely rewarded — as Demand Media demonstrated with its artful production of inexpensive articles that attracted lots of search-driven page views.
The need to gather page views from search, as well as from feeds that appear on others’ pages, apps and plugins, has also changed the manner in which some stories are presented.
Today’s journalists tend toward straightforward rather than elliptical headlines — which are harder for search bots or users on a small screen to understand. They are also reordering the tops of stories, and carefully naming and captioning photos to appease the search gods.
And we should consider what happens, too, when machines rather than people select stories, as is already very common for ads. Leaving aside the ethics of tracking (which we’ll explore below), is it right for different people to see a completely different front page, according to what a system believes is most of interest?
How is a participatory democracy affected if the news we are fed is different from each other, even if we look at the same news pages?
A business development executive at a major financial news organization told me last week that his company is considering whether to allow its front page widgets to, for example, change the selection of opinion pieces presented according to who’s visiting.
The Sway of Social
Others are using social media to drive interest.
“BuzzFeed has gamed the Facebook system as artfully as Demand Media and Associated Content gamed Google,” Gawker founder Nick Denton said recently.
But that gain can come at a high price not only in deciding what’s presented and how, but also in the survival of the organization. Demand Media’s stock price plunged soon after Google changed its algorithm with “Panda,” a method for elevating content considered of higher quality in search results.
BuzzFeed is “rather dependent — as those companies were — on the goodwill of their distribution partners, the dictatorship of the algorithm, and the fatigue of the audience,” Denton noted.
The Journalist vs. The Organization
Because of social media — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, blogs and more — journalists now have power and influence that for a news organization can represent a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, reporters can be tasked with writing popular stories and spreading them in their social channels. They can also, though, have the power to make their stories popular through efforts that can run outside the control of the editors — and force the question of whether everything in the reporter’s feed reflects on the company.
News organizations need to have policies about what can, and should not, be said in journalists’ social feeds and how much to associate them with the company — or whether to have a separate social presence for someone’s professional side. More than one client of my company has asked for help deciding whether to use the company’s social feeds, naming them, say, “@Sports_Company,” or use the journalists’ personal feeds.
When journalists become a “brand”, the power shifts and they may be able to take their social following with them — as the New York Times must no doubt be discovering with the departure of my former colleague Brian Stelter to CNN.
“You may have hired them because of their social following,” Jeffrey Neuburger, co-head of the Proskauer law firm’s media and communications group, told me late last year in a discussion on social media policy. “Get those employees once they’re working for you to sign off on a social media policy, and how to use it in the course of their employment.”
But if the company limits the reporters, is it unfairly tamping down on their own free speech?
Commenting vs. Silence
Comments equal engagement, which equals repeat visitors, more sharing and more page views, and therefore more of those positive metrics I referred to above.
While leaving comments unmonitored can foster hate speech, scatology, even defamatory or libelous language, monitoring comments can be a huge resource suck, and open the organization up to new liabilities. No one has unlimited resources. Popular Science has shut their comments off so they can concentrate on producing the stories they feel they do best.
Other organizations have turned their commenting systems over to Facebook or Disqus, as noted in the most recent episode of the Mediatwits podcast. But by doing so, they also abdicate some judgment to a third party, who not only collects the commenter’s data but may also have different standards than the news organization. They may inadvertently keep some in the community from having a voice, either because they don’t want to log on to the commenting service, or because they are legitimately fearful about disclosing their identities on a controversial topic.
Google has recently taken heat for requiring that comments on YouTube are made through a Google+ account. But I could also argue that Google is taking responsibility by trying to vouch for the comments being made while helping the discussion stay civil.
Church Meets State
Editors who leave advertising decisions solely to the sales and marketing departments may find their editorial content looking different tomorrow than it did today.
One of the pleasures of digital is that it’s endlessly changeable. You can mess with the code every day. But, one of the curses of digital, too, is that you can keep moving things around and adding new features. That means advertising clients can ask you to do so, to make the ads more attractive, or even intrusive.
Top news organizations, including the New York Times, now take ads that will expand over content or push it down, making more room for an interactive commercial message.
Sree Sreenivasan, a former associate dean at Columbia University’s journalism school, once quipped that even on his small blog he felt the urge to place an ad in the middle of the text, rather than off to the side, so he’d gather more clicks on the ads, and therefore more money. (He didn’t do so.)
When there are “click to buy” links from review pages to booking and buying services like Open Table, Amazon or Barnes & Noble — giving the news organization a share of the revenue — does it also pressure reviewers to spur sales by being more positive, or at least giving the appearance of doing so?
Behind the scenes, too, top journalists need to be involved in important discussions about how to handle code, such as what parts of a page loads first: the editorial content or the ads? If it’s the editorial, you’re then foregoing some revenue because people may stop the page load before the ads get there either manually or via various types of ad blockers.
“Why should the ad load when the page loads?” asked Jeff Burkett, senior director of ad innovations and client services at Washington Post Digital, at the recent ad:tech conference in New York. “Maybe the ad should only load when you’re going to see it.”
Advertisers this year have become more aggressive in demanding verification that their ads have been placed in choice spots and that they’ve been seen, which increases pressure to create higher revenue content and demands the ads be placed in higher positions.
“We have found sometimes that below-the-fold performs better than above the fold,” Burkett said. “Sometimes I can say to an advertiser: ‘Trust me, you don’t want below the fold. You want engagement.’”
At the “Truth and Trust” event, BeliefNet founder and former Federal Communications Commission official Steve Waldman noted that smaller startup digital news organizations are being pressured to disguise content written for sponsors as news.
“The pressure is relentless, because they’re struggling to get by,” he said.
The discussions can get as granular as whether to allow advertisers access to the same content management system as editors, thereby giving them the same search optimization (SEO) and archiving privileges, along with similar display, as the editorial content. Forbes executives have proudly talked of allowing their native advertising articles to get SEO and archiving privileges, while in much of Europe such access is forbidden, Alice Antheaume, associate dean at Sciences Po School of Journalism in France, told me at the ONA13 conference in Atlanta.
Tracking and Privacy
Do readers and viewers have the right to consume news without others knowing? By tracking visitors — which many ads and registration and measurement systems require — the news organization may be denying them that right.
Even the editorial side would often like to know the behaviors of the people coming to a site, to better offer content that appeals to them, as noted above.
But what happens when a government entity asks to see the weblogs in pursuit of an alleged criminal, or if the data is inadvertently released, as has happened on multiple occasions? Many people would like to keep their surfing private, and may not know the ways to avoid tracking, or the finer details.
Most users are not sophisticated enough to understand the distinction between first-party cookies, such as the ones your site places for tracking pageviews and registration, and third-party ones from advertisers that can follow them off site.
Many publishers today are using cookies to track people off sites, so they can make additional revenue by “re-targeting” them with ads after they’ve left.
Is it ethical to track people and hold information on who’s reading what article how, and for how long? Is it ethical to let advertisers do so? Sure, if the user agrees. But does a news organization owe its community the ability to easily say, “I’d rather you didn’t know?” — as is required in some parts of Europe and has been discussed as a possibility in U.S. legal circles?
Editors today ought to be involved in discussions of what information is being taken and tracked, and with whom it’s being shared.
I am not taking a doctrinaire stand on any of this. I have said on more than one occasion that as hard as it can be to double-source a story and get it right, you sweat bullets when you have to meet payroll and there’s not enough in the bank.
I believe in letting the organization follow common practices that let it survive, and there are few absolutes on where to draw the line. Standards are constantly evolving, so what may not have been accepted yesterday can be today.
Nor is this to say that there are no analogies in the pre-Internet ad days. There was a time in television when having advertisements take up some of the screen for ads during programming was unthinkable. Who really believes there’d be home and gardening or thick automobile sections in newspapers if not for the desire to attract advertisers who want to reach readers of those features?
Upholding certain standards ultimately means you are willing to say “no” to revenue, even in instances when that may jeopardize the ability to do the things you want.
There are few business models to directly support journalism that “afflicts the comfortable,” but no journalistic mission can succeed without financial support.
With the pressure to earn money ever more intense, the modern news executive faces a constant balancing act.
An award-winning former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift, and is the business columnist for the site. He is a founder at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk and you can Circle him on Google+.