For centuries, the news business largely made editorial decisions based on the instincts of the professionals who ran news organizations. This wasn’t as difficult as it sounds. Stories that were topical and / or interesting and / or impactful made it into the newspaper or on TV. The instinct was: If it smells like news, run it.
Often, we barely knew which stories actually touched people. We just kinda had to guess.
We don’t have to do that anymore. Each hour, we can analyze the internet for topics that are “trending.” We can analyze our web sites — and those of our competitors, I suppose, though I don’t know if anyone actually does that — for stories that are “most viewed” or “most popular.” We can read comments on web sites and try to use them to gauge how deeply the stories touch viewers.
It’s a blessing and a curse.
It’s a blessing, I suppose, for sites like Buzzfeed. It panders to the audience / gives the readers what they want with an endless menu of lists and coverage of Nicki Minaj, whose name seems to constantly appear whenever I hear somebody describe what words or phrases are “trending” on the web.
TV stations are also highly inclined to give viewers what they want, especially given the erosion of viewership over the last decade.
The question is whether viewers want their TV stations to pander to them by juicing up coverage of sugary stories that get the most clicks — or whether viewers want their news diet to include broccoli and spinach and other non-sweets. Traditionally, the answer — based on instinct and no small amount of audience research — is both. Audiences will tell researchers they want to tune in to see the broad spectrum of news items. But a prime-time tease — the ten-second spot run during “The Voice” or “American Idol” promoting the upcoming newscast — will likely select a topic more sugar-based and less broccoli-based, to keep viewers from clicking elsewhere.
I’m an old guy who has grown accustomed to these web-based sources of instant feedback. If a story I’ve done is on the “most popular” list on our site, I will find a dark place in the newsroom and contort myself to deliver ample pats on mine own back. Conversely, if my story doesn’t make the list — which is far more frequently the case — I will take comfort in knowing that I’m not pandering to the viewers.
Meanwhile — here’s an experiment. On the day I posted “Tell it to the Judge” a week ago, this site got a modest 367 hits. As I post this Monday morning, the counter to the right (scroll to the bottom where it says “blog stats”) says this blog has had 769,780 hits since its 2008 inception.
Now that the phrase “nicki minaj” appears in this post (twice!), let’s see how that number spikes today.