The Spectacle Blog

‘Shackled to Their Computers,’ Journalists Encounter Market Demand

By on 7.19.10 | 12:12PM

Pardon my schadenfreude over this inside-media story:

Such is the state of the media business these days: frantic and fatigued. Young journalists who once dreamed of trotting the globe in pursuit of a story are instead shackled to their computers, where they try to eke out a fresh thought or be first to report even the smallest nugget of news — anything that will impress Google algorithms and draw readers their way.
Tracking how many people view articles, and then rewarding — or shaming — writers based on those results has become increasingly common in old and new media newsrooms. The Christian Science Monitor now sends a daily e-mail message to its staff that lists the number of page views for each article on the paper’s Web site that day.
The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times all display a “most viewed” list on their home pages. Some media outlets, including Bloomberg News and Gawker Media, now pay writers based in part on how many readers click on their articles. . . .
“At a paper, your only real stress point is in the evening when you’re actually sitting there on deadline, trying to file,” said Jim VandeHei, Politico’s executive editor, in an interview from the publication’s offices just across the Potomac River from downtown Washington. “Now at any point in the day starting at 5 in the morning, there can be that same level of intensity and pressure to get something out.”

Well, this is certainly not a wholly beneficent trend -- such online metrics tend to favor The Big Scoop over feature writing and other necessary elements of a balanced news diet -- but it's certainly good to see journalists being confronted with the supply-and-demand reality that the news business is, after all, a business.

Having spent the first decade of my career at small newspapers where the challenge was always to produce enough copy to fill the pages, I learned by hard experience "the need for speed" in the news business. Merely surviving at a small paper requires the ability to crank out stories in a ferocious hurry.

When I came to Washington in 1997, I discovered that many D.C. journalists have never had the valuable lessons that such early experience imparts. Large staffs and specialized "beats" meant that, if the State Department didn't produce any shocking developments on Tuesday, the reporter whose job it was to cover the State Department wasn't expected to file a story for Wednesday's paper.

Coming from a background where reporters were expected, at a minimum, to produce eight bylined stories per week, it was dismaying to see how many Washington reporters got full-time salaries for producing at far less than half that pace. They were lumbering dinosaurs ripe to be supplanted by fast and hungry mammals.

The rise of online news is slowly driving such dinosaur journalism out of business, thank God. While the pay-per-click mentality has some clear disadvantages (fewer book reviews, less in-depth reporting, more sensational quick-draw attitudinizing), at least journalists are now forced to recognize that they must write with the aim of attracting readers -- and do so with a sense of productivity -- or else find some other line of work.

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