On Monday, The New York Times ran something of a rant in the business section about the impact of social media on quality journalism, with writer Ravi Somaiya saying in part: “[a]s more readers move toward online social networks, and as publishers desperately seek scale to bring in revenue, many [newspapers] have deplored a race toward repetitive, trivial journalism, so noisy that it drowns out more considered work.”
Joshua Topolsky, a founder of The Verge, added this means that the news industry “must churn out stories that are the equivalent of blockbuster superhero franchises, with mass-audience appeal, but light on nuance and creative risk,” according to Somaiya. “I think that we have, in trying to attack the totality of possible eyeballs on the Internet, lost the things that make publications great,” Topolsky added.
Just three days earlier, a story ran on Nieman [Journalism] Lab headlined “The New York Times built a Slack bot to help decide which stories to post to social media.” The bot, named Blossom, can be queried by Times editors to figure out which story to post to Facebook. Facebook posts recommended by Blossom on average have been getting 120% more clicks than non Blossom-powered posts, and the median, or “typical,” Blossom post, gets about 380% more clicks than a typical non-Blossom post.
“Blossom doesn’t yet send active alerts on what might take off specifically on Twitter, but editors still query the bot for Twitter suggestions and have found some overlap between posts that do well on Facebook and posts that do well on Twitter,” writes the post’s author, Shan Wang.
The problem with all of this is that it assumes nobody has the time or attention span to read long articles online anymore, especially since everybody uses smartphones that lend themselves to reading and sharing bite-sized content. But the Times need only look at which of their stories readers email to one another to point them in a positive direction. An analysis by the University of Pennsylvania showed people prefer long articles on intellectually challenging topics. Science articles performed surprisingly well for the Times.
Moreover, BuzzSumo analyzed social share counts of over 100 million articles over eight months and found that long-form articles are shared more than short-form content on average. In fact, the longer the content, the more it’s shared. Articles of 3,000 to 10,000 words gained 8,859 total average shares, the most shares on average of the various content types.
While saying that there is a “difference between data-informed and completely data-driven” journalism, the Times (like every newspaper) needs every dime of online revenue it can find.
You would have to be a fool not to realize that Blossom is the first of many tools that will help editors see that stories with high linkbait potential will be more easily monetized online than the more substantive stories on government, economics and foreign affairs that typically run in the dead-tree edition.
A counterargument can be made that click-bait stories are “meeting the market,” so the more pick-up by social media, the better assured editors are that they are fulfilling the interests of their readers. This is the sad theory behind Google showing me natural search returns that are entirely different from yours when we make the exact same query.
Social scientists are already concerned about how surrounding yourself with like-minded people on social media and trading stories back and forth only serves to reinforce your own prejudices and narrow perspectives.
This self-selective “community” tends to insulate you from other points of view that might help you reconsider how you see and judge the world. Cable TV news is already operating under the premise that you need know only that with which you agree.
The last, best hope to put stories under your nose that you might not otherwise read are the nation’s better newspapers. They know full well that a couple of thousand words on the situation in Burundi will not be read by as many people as the stories about linemen clocking their quarterbacks, dentists killing lions, or some movie star heading in or out of rehab.
But, they are producing the first rough draft of history, trying to meet that mandate even at their own expense.
There was a time years ago that I believed the only way newspapers could survive was to customize content down to the individual in exchange for readers revealing what they were in market for the next day or two. Such hot leads would be highly attractive to advertisers.
While I still think a value exchange like that would work, I’m no longer convinced it is in the best interest of readers to see only what they want in their paper. There is a difficult-to-calculate benefit to our society to be exposed to news and points of view that are out of our comfort zone.