In the early days of newspapers, success and advertising was measured by total circulation. The ability to measure how many people were reading just the business section, lifestyle section, or sports section didn’t exist. As more consumers switch their news reading habits to online consumption, our ability to track which section and pages are being read has improved. However, this enhanced tracking has a dark side: the rise of page view journalism. Simply put, page view journalism is the deliberate creation of stories that are designed to increase page views. It often results in an increase of low quality, high volume reporting and off topic stories.
While page view journalism is often attributed as the primary cause of demand media style content, the fact is it’s so pervasive now that it has almost become the norm. Look at the homepage of Techmeme on any given day and you’ll see an increasingly large number of websites trying to siphon off some of that traffic by “reblogging ” the top stories of the day, adding little or no value to the discussion. While rebloggers are at the lower end of the food chain, page view journalism also occurs at the top. Techcrunch, for example, covers with voluminous detail almost every story that is even slightly connected to twitter. It wouldn’t surprise me if MG Siegler did an expose on how Mary in the AP department at Twitter killed the staple market by switching to paper clips. Don’t laugh…it’s not that far fetched.
Want an example of how to lose your focus? Check out Mashable, a site that regularly stretches to cover things like Tiger Woods and Fashion Week in an effort to bolster page views. The king of page view media is the Huffington Post, which reblogs, over-covers everything, and has gone off-topic so much it no longer has a main topic.
So what’s the cause of this page view journalism? It’s economics. The fact is that an online customer is worth only a quarter of what a print customer is worth. For newspapers, those economics simply don’t make a profit; for virtual newsrooms or lean new media ventures like Techcrunch, they do. As we take advantage of the cognitive surplus and the lower cost barrier to entry, the news shifts from being a scarce commodity to something we have an abundance of. The fact that our attention spans are changing and short, reblog-style posts are preferred by many, as opposed to in-depth 3-4 pages articles in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal also plays a role. Simply put, a newspaper has a hard time justifying a reporter’s salary to cover something in depth when revenues are decreasing and advertisers are paying less. Publishers like Gawker who don’t have to deal with real world expenses like union wages, delivery costs, health care benefits, and pension plans have lower operating costs. Greed, however, is a universal concept. Even if you operate in a business with lower operating expenses, publishers still want to extract the most profit so, instead of overpriced classified ads, they go after high search volume terms to drive up CPM revenue.
As long as there’s a way to make money off of impressions, this trend will continue. As long as there’s a glut of news, the quality will spiral downward. As long as the quality continues to drop, so will the ad revenue … It is a vicious, self-fulfilling prophecy. The only way out is for publishers at the fore to go the route of publications like All Things D to put out quality news. Then people will have to reach the conclusion that there is some quality news that is worth paying to have access to. People may continue to want “free” news, but it’s like the saying goes “if you aren’t paying something, then you aren’t a customer: you are the product that’s being sold.”