When you visit a news Web site, the people who control the site know quite a lot about you. At a minimum, they know the domain you have come from (a dot-com, dot-org, dot-gov, dot-edu). They have a good idea what state or country you have logged on from. They know what Web site or search engine you have come from. And they know what features on the Web page you’ve clicked on, including the banner ads or hyperlinks to other Web pages.
If you visited the site before, you probably had a “cookie” surreptitiously installed on your computer by the site, allowing the site to start building a profile of your particular tastes. Virtually all news sites and other commercial online enterprises install cookies without notifying Internet users. A cookie is a bit of encrypted computer code that sits on your computer’s hard drive and identifies your computer the next time it—and you—visit the site. (If you want to see how many cookies have been planted on your computer, search for a file on your main drive named “cookies.” Then see if you can guess where all those files came from.)
In addition to allowing sites to track what users do as they click from page to page, feature to feature on a Web site, cookies allow Web operators to do a bunch of other things. They can direct a site to provide personalized layouts, shopping carts, and search options each time you return to the site. They can alert advertisers to put specific customized ads tied to your interests on the pages you visit. They permit sites to create “mypersonalnews.com” Web pages that provide you stories and features that appeal to you. And cookies allow advertisers to know how many and which readers of a news story click on an advertisement and how many of those ad-clickers actually buy something. This is the Holy Grail of the advertising business: knowing down to the penny and down to the individual customer which ads and which news stories generate sales.
The capacity of Web sites to tailor information and learn so much about each visitor has caused shudders among journalists and social critics. Many commentators worry that widespread customization of information will lead to a dystopia of atomized Internet users, unaware of the world around them. Many reporters fear that widespread use of Web-tracking technologies is the final step towards turning news into an entertainment commodity where the popularity of some types of stories privileges them over important stories that don’t have the same pizzazz. Indeed, the alarm took tangible form this spring when Salon.com, a respected Internet-based news operation, made cost-cutting decisions by firing the people who worked in departments that were not logging sufficient “page views”—the number of Internet users who click on a specific Web page.
Writing in Broadcasting & Cable magazine, a respected trade journal, commentator Russell Shaw summed up the anxiety about the Salon layoffs this way: “What happened at Salon was an affront to all matters journalistic…. The 20 percent reduction in staff at Salon has produced a site that, while still capable of thought-provoking pieces, has tended to become more salacious in much of its daily story budget. Salaciousness drives clicks. Clicks drive page views. Page-view counts are shown to media buyers, who will buy ads to run on the Web pages of editorial sections that get the eyeballs.”
The issues here are very important: Does the Web’s capacity for precise and fine-grained measurement represent a fundamental new threat to journalists? And how destructive is the Web to the obvious benefits that flow from Americans’ traditional approach to news, built on the idea of serendipity (“I didn’t know that!”) and a mixture of pieces that are more or less balanced between those that are important and those that are entertaining?
Weighing the pluses and minuses, I think the Internet has been good for news, if not always for the news business. Let’s start with the arguments about the menace posed by very specific readership measures. Online measurements are clearly more precise than previous tools, but there is no evidence that they are being used any more aggressively or harmfully than old techniques that gauged news consumers’ preferences.
News organizations have been fiends for data about the interplay of editorial and commercial content for a very long time. Circulation lists are probed for insights into audience tastes; features are pilot tested in certain markets before they are launched in the full paper; Nielsen ratings have been used for years to determine the fate of anchor folk and story selection; surveys and focus groups are often conducted to find out everything from what kind of stories have the most draw to what kinds of graphics leap off the page or the screen; “impact” analyses are done by ad agencies and news firms’ ad sales staffs to find out what kind of ads work with what kind of stories; cover sales are plumbed for their meaning about what stories “work” and what stories don’t have big appeal; letters to the editor are dissected as proxies for sectors of the readership, and drastic changes in content are made during television’s “sweeps months” because broadcast producers know what draws especially big audiences.
Those who don’t think newsrooms are keenly attuned to commercial realities and market feedback haven’t witnessed the agonized discussions at a news organization about what to put on the front page, how to lead the broadcast, whether a comic strip should be canceled, or whether a correspondent should change her hairstyle to boost her Q score, a value that measures her appeal to viewers.
Media critic and Internet analyst James Fallows argues that fear about the new audience metrics represents a typical “Year Zero” belief about the Internet—an embrace of the idea that nothing happening online has ever happened before. “They are ignoring the evidence that this is the latest installment of arguments about an old tension,” says Fallows. “This is a minor difference in degree from what has come before and there is no reason yet to think that it will destroy the balance between stories that will draw a big enough crowd to keep your business in operation—what people want to know—and stories that for various reasons editors think readers should know.”
The anxieties about viewership measures are tied to concerns about the impact of customized news. The connection goes like this: If the news becomes a quest to give Internet users precisely what they want, then they will all isolate themselves in info-bubbles and civic life will wither even further. But this vastly overstates the threat and ignores the benefits of tailored news. If individuals now have an easier time finding news of intense interest to them, but not to the general community, that is a big advance. Imagine being a student from Thailand, studying in Des Moines. The local paper will never tell much of anything about daily events in Bangkok, but you can find out whatever you want on the Net. To the extent we judge journalism by its ability to help people find information that is useful and relevant to them, this helps the cause.
What about the counterargument that this removes people from exposure to important information that doesn’t fit their mypersonalnews.com profile? The evidence about the way people get news online challenges that fear. Research by the Pew Internet & American Life Project shows that 80 percent of online news consumers are encountering and approaching news on the Internet the same way news consumers always have. Fully 42 percent of those who get news on the Internet on a typical day say they chance upon and check out news stories while they are doing other things online. This is the essence of serendipity and it is an indication that old-fashioned wire copy reports are featured on many kinds of Web sites. Another 38 percent of those who get news online click onto news sites to learn the news—behavior that apes the long-standing practices of news consumers.
If anything, the arrival of the Internet in the news world has increased the flow of news and has rooted many news operations even more in their communities—both of which are beneficial things to those who worry about social capital. Many news operations’ Webmasters noticed several years ago that their traffic jumped after the lunch hour, presumably when people returned to their desks after being away and wanted to check what was happening in the news and in the financial markets. In some newsrooms, this post-lunch hour period is called the “second prime time,” and many of the most sophisticated sites have created a midday update or “breaking news” feature for their service to make sure those prime-time consumers get a news fix.
Even more important in the grand scheme of nourishing robust communities is the fact that many newspapers have become more engaged with underserved parts of their readership, thanks to Internet. A typical site now has in-depth coverage of community issues, calendars of community events, coverage of every conceivable sports team down to the peewee level, bulletin boards for debate about local issues, features for readers to scream back at the editors, and reviews of restaurants and local cultural activities. They act as Web portals and databases for their communities. The most venturesome sites, according to Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, allow for a proliferation of voices in the news through self-publishing and interactive participation on local issues.
While online news brings many advantages to consumers and communities, it has not yet become a profit center in any news organization. The unconcealed reality of the Internet is that users expect information to be free and users have pummeled every news operation that tried to charge for its material, except the interactive Wall Street Journal. The rest of online news Web sites depend on advertising to raise pretty pitiful revenues, and none of the sites are close to breaking even. So I submit that if the leaders of journalism want to stop worrying about incursions by advertisers—or advertising metrics—into newsrooms, they should get busy finding ways to produce content that somebody, particularly subscribers, will buy—and pay for—online.
Lee Rainie is director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a research center that looks at the social impact of the Internet (www.pewinternet.org/). He used to be managing editor of U.S. News & World Report.