Thursday, August 28, 2008

Oh, WaPo, We Knew You When

I've been thinking a lot lately about information quality, and information evaluation, and other such good and crunchy things that concern librarians. (Well, all right. I took some time off from thinking about these things to get married, hence the recent radio silence here.)

The Washington Post ran a...I guess it's an editorial, judging by the tone, on information overload. Except that what it really is is a thinly-veiled screed decrying the decline of information quality in the age of information profusion, complete with a eulogy for the selfless newspapers that still provide good, hearty information to the soup of public opinion. (Or should that be stew, or something even less savory?)

My first thought is that Dusty Horwitt should read some history. Specifically, of newspapers and journalism. Particularly of the 19th century.

My second is that Horwitt's piece is pretty profuse, itself. You can throw as many statistics on the printed page, or the computer screen for that matter, as you want, but by themselves they don't add up to an argument.

In fact, let's unpack this piece a little, titled: "If Everyone's Talking, Who Will Listen?"

Let's start with this little tidbit:

In August 2007, there were about 100 million blogs. Of those that reached 100,000 people or more in a month, only about 20 focused on news or politics, according to ComScore Media Metrix, a company that measures Internet traffic.

Why is this bad? If the point is that the profusion of information channels fragments audiences--and we see throughout the piece that this is Horwitt's point--then shouldn't we be pleased at that relatively low number? And notice, Horwitt doesn't tell us how many of those 100 million blogs actually do reach 100,000 people or more in a month. We can't find out from ComScore, either, since their data is proprietary, and Horwitt's article doesn't link to any citations. (In itself, very common in newspapers, even online ones, even those reporting on scientific research studies which are themselves available online in open access publications. Tell me how the Internet doesn't help spread information, again?)

Then there's this:

According to Nielsen Online, the average visitor to newspaper Web sites stops by for just 1.5 minutes per day on average. By contrast, the average print newspaper reader spends 40 minutes with each day's edition, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

That does suggest fragmented attention spans, if not necessarily fragmented audiences. On the other hand, it really doesn't tell the whole story. Among its unanswered questions are the following: how much overlap exists between online and print newspaper readers? (Not a lot, as it turns out, but Horwitt doesn't even address the question.) Also--and this is a glaring omission--newspaper website are not the only source of news online. Even newspapers and blogs (Horwitt's targeted bugaboo) together are not the only sources of news online. Horwitt completely fails to mention television and radio channels which operate websites, not to mention news sites which aren't tied to printed newspapers at all.

Also not addressed is how many different newspaper websites that average visitor may visit in a day. I don't have data on this, but on an average day I'll visit at least two national newspaper websites, two city newspaper websites, anywhere from one to six regional newspaper websites, and a local blog operated by a couple of local media veterans who understand that beat reporting techniques do just fine in the blog format. Add it all up and I'd guess I spend more than 40 minutes a day reading the news, and that doesn't even account for the news radio I listen to on my commute.

Maybe I'm exceptional. Could be. But the State of the News Media 2008 report (which is, by the way, a product of the Project for Excellence in Journalism) suggests that if you take print and online newspaper readership numbers together, newspaper readership is growing, not shrinking. So what's the problem here?

Maybe it's this:

The overload siphons audiences and revenue from newspapers such as The Post and other outlets that can spread important information, forcing these media to shrink and to rely increasingly on advertising to stay afloat.

It's true enough that lower readership of print newspapers in particular means that print advertising is less effective. On the other hand, to suggest that newspapers have not historically had to rely on advertising to stay afloat is disingenuous at best. The real problem is that the print advertising format does not translate well to the way that people read news online: what's more, as the State of the Media report points out, newspapers have been losing classified advertising revenue for years. It's not a new problem, and it's only indirectly related to the proliferation of online information sources. Sure, Monster and Craigslist do provide information, but nobody would call their content news.

And we're only halfway through this editorial. More unpacking to come, hopefully tomorrow.

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