The WWTDD Effect

Should we give readers what they want?

I’m reminded of my time at the student newspaper, a couple of years ago. In an attempt to get any sort of clue on what our readers wanted to read, and why students in some fields of study didn’t care about the paper at all, we organized a survey. Y’know, one of the most boring, but also one of the most effective ways of getting quantitative insight into whatever it is you’re doing.

The survey itself was heresy at the paper.

In the eighties, the attitude at our student newspaper can be summed up as “actually, we don’t want you to read us, since you’re probably too dumb anyway”. Subsidies by the college administration can do that to people.

By 2008, we’d grown out of that cocky attitude a little bit, but not entirely. In the end, so sayeth the wise sophomore, what constitutes good journalism depends on objective criteria, not on what readers think, isn’t it?

Okay, so, good journalism might sometimes be at odds with what people wish to read. Both tend to coincide, but not always. Readers aren’t stupid, but they’re only human after all.

That’s how it starts out. And before you know it, the newsroom is collecting snippets of inane reader comments and every morning starts off with a lament of how these kids just don’t appreciate good reporting.

Many journalists don’t factor in how readers respond to their writing when contemplating their self-worth. That’s scary. Because in the end, if nobody reads what you do, that’s probably a sign that it’s not that good. And even if it is, any type of enterprise reporting — think investigations — depends on a sizable readership to have its desired effect.

I’d like to see more serious reporters who, while holding themselves to the highest possible standards in reporting, take audience reach and interaction as one of the chief metrics in ascertaining their success. Great quality, no lowest common denominator, huge readership. Challenge yourself.

I’d like to see more reporters tackle tough issues, yet in a way that attracts readers not dissimilarly from how What Would Tyler Durden Do attracts even the most jaded liberal arts grads to celebrity news.

Impossible, you say? Then how come half the world read a detailed blogpost on antenna design? How come people from around the world follow American politics on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, when they can’t even seem to bother to follow their local elections? Why does Mike Masnick have a successful blog on something as dreary as intellectual property rights? Why do San Franciscans visit The Bold Italic en masse? Wasn’t regional journalism supposed to be boring? Something you only do because you can’t get a job at a real newspaper?

Uhuh.

17 thoughts on “The WWTDD Effect

  1. Peter Demain

    That entire notion is so moronic that upon the sparsest anaylsis it morphs into a complete platitude that falls on its face.

    Readers are a varied bunch; some want this and some want that. Infact you could take 100 readers of a given thing and then get a massive spectrum from the question ‘What would like to see more of in our mag/paper/pamphlet?’

    We can’t go charging at windmills quixotically and cover it all; there’s only a certain number of hours to be handled – and thus we have to make judgments from our surveys. Giving the readers what they want is impossible because they are too diverse and have too many wants – the most we can hope for is to give some of them what they want and hope most others like it all the same.

    This is how is goes in most big and emergant places. We can adjust the image of a given thing, this can be done in many ways from tone of write-ups to logo to fonts to…you get the idea. This can concentrate your market and make it harder for people to say they want something that you’d find hard to square with the current mood of the magazine.

    Seriously this is Journalism 101 and doesn’t merit an article. But as you note people do have the snideness to snigger at regional journalism as if its a lower caste of the trade. I do regional work and its the finest work I’ve done in my life – better than working for a ‘real’ newspaper:

    You want a desk in an office with the PA wire? Not going outside except for a pint and a sarnie at lunch? Rewording and cannibilizing stuff to keep the churnalist factory of news running?

    You’re welcome to it. I’ll take half the cash you’re paid a year, while your soul rots and any passion you had died: I do the real thing thanks.

    -Pete @ dirtygarnet.com

    Reply
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  3. Willy

    I agree with Peter. This argument that reporters should have in mind what the reader wants is a fool’s errand at best. I say if you ask most readers today they will tell you they don’t know what they want. You can jazz up a story with flash, bells and whistles but if the content is smut then it will remain smut no matter how many followers. WWTDD is smut at it’s finest. If I’m interested in smut that day then I will go to the site. The creator of that site knows full well that what he is churning out is not journalism but crass appropriation of scandalous headlines. Readers eat it up because it works with their short attention spans.

    “I’d like to see more serious reporters who, while holding themselves to the highest possible standards in reporting, take audience reach and interaction as one of the chief metrics in ascertaining their success.”

    A reporter’s job is to find the truth in the story not to simply ring a bell so the masses will come running.

    “Many journalists don’t factor in how readers respond to their writing when contemplating their self-worth”

    Self worth should never be measured by how a reader “responds” to an article. The worth is in the content. Read it because it is well written, factual and news worthy or don’t.

    I think you have much to learn grasshopper.

    Reply
  4. Stijn Debrouwere

    When I say that reporters should think about their audience, Willy, I don’t necessarily mean to imply that they should jazz up stories with teasing headlines or by inflating news value. My point is that it’s very dangerous to justify your work merely by covering your ears and repeating “my work is good and truthful and interesting and factual” in some sort of an internal monologue, paying no mind to how people actually consume what you write.

    Specifically with regards to reader surveys, Peter and Willy: come on, you guys know how surveys work, you know they never just ask “sooo, tell us what you’d like to read!” and are never meant to provide a straightforward answer to the question of what a medium should cover. You’re bashing surveys because they’re not a perfect tool. Well, guess what, nothing ever is. That doesn’t make surveys a fool’s errand.

    I’m disappointed that you don’t seem to (want to) grasp the nuance of the argument: readers aren’t always right, but they aren’t always wrong either, and they deserve some respect and consideration. We need to move beyond the dichotomy that dumb content sells, and smart journalism doesn’t. And we need to move beyond the hubris that journalists are the only people who can possibly know what smart journalism is.

    If we actually want people to read more of the good stuff, we have to sell it, rather than denigrating readers because of their supposed short attention spans and love for smut. Some humility wouldn’t be out of place.

    Reply
    1. Willy

      If you have to “sell” the news then you are already in trouble. I have no problem having a small audience for my blog. If they are interested in what I have to say and can relate to the experience then that’s good enough for me. I think surveys are a crock. I’ve worked in an industry where “research” and “focus groups” somehow are supposed to paint a picture when in fact it is an abstract illustration used in a controlled environment to illicit perfunctory responses while eagerly waiting to eat the free lunch that has been provided for their time.

      The truth sells not the news.

      Th

      Reply
  5. Peter Demain

    I find myself in agreement with much of everything you say Willy, and you may want to check out my other comments here on Paul’s fine and very modern blog for information on journalism in 2010 though you seem to have a good idea of life-as-is already.

    Surveys can give a bit of indication of this or that; often they are mere corporate astrology where it means something to whoever happens to be intepreting it. If you’re conducting a survey and want something concise, concrete and definite out of it then you are deluded all of the time when it comes to media.

    I mean think about it: People who read news don’t often contemplate the principles behind it – they haven’t formed a composite, organized opinion on what’s good and bad, what should happen what shouldn’t etc. So when they get this survey saying ‘Hey what you do you think should go in our mag?” – more often they’ll ummm and ahhh a bit then just put something general they like in that might not have much thought behind it.

    When I was young, I loved the principles behind journalism – the idea of going out and exposing some hypocrite or liar for what they were seemed romantic and worthwhile. Or doing a piece with substance and meaning to people reading: That’s a tall goal to shoot for today – and if you say to a local or national sub/editor ‘Listen I need time to get this up to scratch’ they’ll get a disgruntled half the time and can even deny to publish it due to ‘deadlines’.

    Content is king. You wouldn’t buy a dodgy product in any other field so why settle for cannibilized subpar pseudo-news and glossed up crap? The pigheadedness obstinacy of the trade in favouring quantity over quality is what really makes me dismayed. OK I can still do good work, but it shouldn’t be hard to sell it simply because I ask for more per article & photo over what some office hack can put together off the PA wire in two hours which appears in a dozen other places.

    -Pete @ dirtygarnet.com

    Reply
    1. Willy

      Absolutely. And I will check out your other threads. I love the commentary. We discuss this very thing in my Communications class and believe it or not many also share your ideals.

      Reply
  6. Paul Bradshaw

    I think the point is that, while journalists accuse bloggers of being an ‘echo chamber’ professional journalism suffers from the same malady. The biggest guide to what we should be writing about is often other news outlets. There’s a well-documented ‘swarming’ effect in journalism where we all go after the same story, saying the same things, instead of digging up new information on poorly-covered subjects. I don’t think Stijn is suggesting being a slave to popular demand, but rather having a connection and awareness of readers/users that mainstream media has lost in its pursuit of economically efficient news (i.e. what everyone else is already writing about).

    Reply
  7. Peter Demain

    I wouldn’t even go so far as to call it ‘economically efficient’. This teeters towards the abstract; but governments have stated that a knowledgable, educated and informed population leads to good things in the future. That’s one reason why most are educated in free at the point of use state schools, and also why through to 1997 one could pursue tertiary education free of charge with grants/bursuries to support you:

    “There is no wealth like knowledge, no poverty like ignorance” – Ali bin Abu-Talib

    What the papers produce is inferior, and many in the trade know it. For instance; consider all that strife that goes on in Africa week-to-week, and also optimistically all the attempts at improvement. To report on that is expensive as you need at least one staff member over there, it will take time, and associated expenses like an intepreter and so on may be necessary too. It is thus almost entirely a realm covered by TV news which is often edited and obviously has to cram itself into slots of 5-15 minutes. So it’s principle over money.

    Instead we have fascination over Jade Goody or Andre/Price or the Millenium Bug; all of which tell us nothing about anything tangible. None of it matters in the principled, quality sense. Compare the magnitude of British reportage on the 1994 Rwandan genocide to the magnitude of reportage of Jade Goody’s cancer, wedding, and death. One woman died. 800,000 and more died in the other event…the levels of coverage here was actually greater for the ‘heroic’ Jade, and persisted much longer. If you asked a people about the 1994 genocide now they’d mightn’t even know about it – likely far less than know who Jade was. Something’s going wrong wouldn’t you say?

    You’ve news where tens of thousands a day die, and news where one psuedoceleb person perishes after several months, accompanied to the emotional chorus of journalists posturing themselves as caring when infact they don’t give one chunk of chicken turd. You can cherry pick examples everywhere over how journalism blindly approaches the cheap and easy to report to the neglect of things of greater importance domestically and abroad…

    But then you realize there are hundreds, thousands of instances of it in recent times. It is why we know more on Africa from Bob ‘Effin” Geldof than people whose job it is to inform us about things. So you’re not cherry picking at all, you’re just fishing in abundant waters for a member of the common species that point to the number one rule: Cheap, easy churnalist crap.

    If that’s ‘economic efficiency’; diverting much-needed funds for good stuff to corporation owners/directors/chief editors pockets to detriment of fine and truthful news, then frankly that is a crock that needs to be curbed or our ‘profession’ will not survive as we know it.

    -Pete @ dirtygarnet.com

    Reply
    1. Willy

      In class tonight we discussed the origins of news and print. It was interesting to discover that some of the first headlines of the day came from Latin, African American, Native American & Asian sources.

      That being said, even then the headlines were extracted from much larger sources. That doesn’t make the news less newsworthy. With nearly everyone traveling the information highway we can’t help but be beset with repetition.

      The most pressing question is how to be a respected journalist within a climate of complacency. How do we answer our calling if our voices are falling on deaf ears?

      Are we to settle on the Jane Goody and Dancing with the Stars revelations or can we still be a strong force in the culture of instant gratification?

      Reply
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  9. Peter Demain

    Just returned to this topic after I linked a few followers on Twitter to the Goody versus Africa article which was adapted from Comment #8 (it tracked back to this article). Didn’t realize you’d put in a further comment back on July the 30th.

    The climate of complacency; this is something I’d be intrigued in hearing you elaborate on from your perceptions Willy. You may wish to watch this excellent lecture too:

    Guardian journalist Nick Davies speaks eclectic about British print journalism’s decline.

    It’s an hour long lecture in a single Youtube video, but Nick is quite a good speaker; active and enthused. Keeps attention better than bore orators where it’s more endurance and thinking about what’s for dinner the forthcoming evening.

    If by ‘we’ you mean journalism in general then no we aren’t to settle on that because there will always be quality. Look at the News of the World wiretapping; that needed some old fashioned journalism to uncover. Allegedly we’d an editor trying to get a cheap scoop by illegally hacking phones – this just cropped up on the BBC and national news the past couple of days.

    Romantically you might intone ‘that’s good journalism fighting the bad practice!’ – However if you look at the numbers involved in uncovering the supposed illegal practice…there were just a few people. A handful in an industry which employs well over 100,000 fixed rate plus freelancers, paparazzo etc. Almost all salaried journos just didn’t cover it or even express concern.

    But if you mean ‘we’ as in the ideological minority who say ‘well quality journalism takes time, effort, resources…and whilst it isn’t as profitable as Jade Goody or reality TV it’s valuable for whole other reasons.’ – The very best in old school digging has changed the world; Watergate, The Times’ Insight team in their 1960s-70s heyday, countless worldwide scoops on corrupt public figures.

    If by ‘deaf ears’ you mean the public that consumes – don’t expect them to start lecturing us en masse. They are largely anonymous consumers, with a minority writing in letters or phoning up to say ‘hey I like…’ or ‘hey this is wrong…’ – So it’s an assertion to say they’re deaf. They aren’t.

    The truth in this is accentuated by how much circulations have fallen – people are voting with their wallet and just not buying paper’s. One can do a simple Google search to see that right across all the national newspapers (and most local rags) circulations are falling. People go online as it’s easy and one can better pick articles of interest…be it the 300 word BBC.co.uk summaries or the at-length financial analysis at FT.com .

    People aren’t idiots; when they read or hear something they do appreciate it and feel it valuable – moreso than a garden variety bit of celeb gossip. I did a historical photoessay over at the community website Blog Preston that was published last week – the praise you get makes you think ‘well more than just people I know via Twitter must appreciate this!’

    Pete, editor at Dirty Garnet.

    Reply
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