Tim Rutten of the Los Angeles Times writes that the death of Anna Nicole Smith may be among the first celebrity stories to land on the front pages of quality newspapers in large measure because of Internet traffic. Rutten explains:
Throughout the afternoon Thursday, editors across the country watched the number of “hits” recorded for online items about Smith’s death. These days, it’s the rare newspaper whose meeting to discuss the content of the next day’s edition doesn’t include a recitation of the most popular stories on the paper’s website. It’s a safe bet that those numbers helped shove Anna Nicole Smith onto a lot of front pages.
What makes this of more than passing interest is that serious American journalism is in the process of transforming itself into a new, hybrid news medium that combines traditional print and broadcast with a more purposefully articulated online presence. One of the latter’s most seductive attributes is its ability to gauge readers’ appetites for a particular story on a minute-to-minute basis. What you get is something like the familiar television ratings — though constantly updated, if you choose to treat them that way.
As someone who believes in the more interactive, “news as a conversation” model espoused by Dan Gillmor, Jay Rosen and others, I’m troubled by Rutten’s observation. This isn’t good, is it? And I say that as someone who believes Smith’s death probably deserved to be on page one — just not as a result of Web numbers.
Then again, this isn’t the inevitable consequence of greater interactivity — it’s less than that. As Rutten notes, this is a matter of editors emulating their television counterparts and following the ratings. And let’s not forget, though TV executives may know how to win any given night by going downscale, news audiences overall have been shrinking for more than 20 years. What feels good right now isn’t necessarily what succeeds in the long run.
Newspaper editors — the good ones, anyway — have traditionally aspired to something better. Unfortunately, being able to measure reader interest is going to make it harder to resist the urge to pander. (Thanks to Media Nation reader R.P. for alerting me to Rutten’s column.)