This morning's day-off multi-tasking: watching coverage of the horrible 8.9 earthquake in Japan while reading my various feeds, which included finally taking on the Bill Keller column about aggregation. It includes this passage in the ultimate graph:
There is no question that in times of momentous news, readers rush to find reliable firsthand witness and seasoned judgment. (In the first hour after Mubarak fell, The Times’s Web site had an astounding one million page views, and friends at other major news organizations tell me they enjoyed a similar surge.) I can’t decide whether serious journalism is the kind of thing that lures an audience to a site like The Huffington Post, or if that’s like hiring a top chef to fancy up the menu at Hooters. But if serious journalism is about to enjoy a renaissance, I can only rejoice. Gee, maybe we can even get people to pay for it.
So here's a thought question: How many "times of momentous news" do we experience in a typical month? With the exception of you news junkies (and you know who you are), how often do you hear something that sends you rushing to your top media channels to find out more?
I don't have answers to that, other than to say "not that often."
Which points to an overlooked problem in media: If you get most of your attention on days when people are urgently paying attention to an event, but you make your money by selling ads on less-interesting content day after routine day, what does that do to the way you structure and value your newsroom resources?
Let me put it this way: It's easy to do journalism on the big days. You just throw everything you've got at the big story and you work it until you collapse.
The danger to the profession and our industry arises in what we do on the slow days, a problem that can be seen in a more compressed fashion on the 24-hour news networks. With more than 19 hours of daily coverage time available to them, news channels could spend their slow days covering diverse stories, delving into complex topics, exploring places and voices and issues that we don't have time for during busy news cycles.
Of course, that's not what news channels do, and it's really not what newspapers (in print or online) do. Because that kind of news is expensive, and why spend money on quality if people aren't paying attention to it?
And so our traditional advertising subsidy for news creates the structure that produces the crap that people say they hate. It's why we get so much Sheen and Lohan right now, even as viewers protest about the relative lack of coverage given to U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan. It's why aerial videos of meaningless car chases and sharks off the coast trump complex stories like the relationship between the bond markets and political policy.
Don't just bitch about it. Understand it. It's a slow news day and you're a news manager, stuck between the business people in the board room and journalists in the newsroom: you can spend days of reporter time developing a complex story, or you can turn a camera on Charlie Sheen, and probably get more attention. It's simple math.
Journalists struggle with what to do in the doldrums, but they're pushing a rope. I have friends who say things like "we just need to buckle down and start covering things of substance," but they just don't grasp that the business logistics of their industry simply won't support that solution. Yes, journalism has competitive problems and culture problems and distribution problems, but if you're talking about making journalism more responsive to issues and less susceptible to distractions, you've got to go to the root issue. We are in the business of packaging audiences to rent to advertisers.
Got it? It's what we do -- or don't do -- on the slow days that's killing our reputations. It's the fact that we must "feed the beast" on days when there is no "time of momentous news." Your front page is going to require a certain number of stories and photos. On routine days, the size of your newspaper -- the amount of information it's going to provide -- is determined not by news judgment on the significance of things, but by the number of ads that you sold. And even when we know that what we're publishing is boring crap, we'll tart it up to make it appear worthy of attention. Because we have to. Because that's our business.
People get angry with me for saying this, because they can't imagine an alternative. But I can. And the first step toward a healthier future is always the imagination of something better.