Friday, August 11, 2017

Reader analytics fail to fulfill role of the press

During my 33 years as a newspaper editor, I grew increasingly concerned that the press was not living up to its responsibility to inform the public. Marginalized by radio and television, and then by online news sources, anguished publishers and editors tried to make news more interesting, more exciting, more appealing, more entertaining.

CBS, once the trusted leader in television news during the heyday of Walter Cronkite, put its news division under the direction of the entertainment division. Newspapers aimed to become more entertaining, too. Consultants advised against too much governmental coverage, international coverage, political coverage, Washington coverage or science coverage.

The one place newspapers could beat the competition, the consultants assured us, was in local coverage. So front pages that once carried the latest in national and international events shifted their sights to the new supermarket or the lost puppy.

A few days ago, John Drescher, editor of the News & Observer of Raleigh, explained a new strategy at the newspaper I read every day. There will be more coverage of what they want to read, he told readers. N&O editors know what readers want to read because they have analytics that show what digital readers are actually reading — something they could only guess at when the N&O was a print-only publication. So if the data show that readers are reading more articles about area restaurants, the N&O will focus its coverage more on area restaurants, even if it means omitting an article on sea level rise or court challenges to new state laws.

Knowing what people are clicking on has worked great for Facebook and Google, so you can hardly blame the N&O and other newspapers for following their lead. But here's the problem: the Founding Fathers created the First Amendment to protect freedom of the press because they knew an independent, free press was the best defender of democracy owing to its ability to inform the public on the key issues of the day.

The United States has relatively lenient libel laws and strong public records laws based, in part on the First Amendment. But advocates of repealing or modifying the First Amendment have grown more aggressive recently, and President Trump has called for revisions to libel laws to make it easier for individuals, even celebrities and politicians, to win defamation cases.

When the news media come to the defense of the First Amendment, their argument about the importance of informing the electorate and being an essential, independent voice had better have more to back it up than newspapers full of entertaining stories about restaurants, puppies and recipes.

Unless the press is fulfilling its obligation to inform the public about important national issues, there is little reason for constitutional protection, and First Amendment opponents will have an easier argument.

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