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Clicks and hits: pursuing a proper online journalism strategy

By Amelia Rufer

The Internet allows consumers of news to pick and choose what they read. Journalism’s challenge is one of ethical and monetary significance: to write about topics that attract readership while serving as gatekeepers of information critical for democratic participation. News organizations need to identify the right balance between what’s interesting and what’s important.

At the recent Wells Memorial Key Centennial Celebration, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) examined how ethics and profit affect the way news organizations choose what news to report. Helping readers engage may be one way to make important news the news that attracts readers.

The 100th anniversary of the Wells Memorial Key-SPJ’s highest honor-included a panel of professionals that explored contemporary and potential issues in journalism. One such question regarded the ethics behind using online metrics like clicks per story to determine story choice.

“It provides the wrong incentive to people to write to the hit count,” said panelist Steve Geimann, editor at Bloomberg News, former president of SPJ and 2001 Wells Memorial Key recipient. “Who is going to be there when something really important has to be covered? If it doesn’t get hits, we’re not going to cover it and I think that’s a little dangerous.”

Panelist Amanda Theisen, a newscast producer at KSTP-TV, said her station measures the impact a story has on the audience when editors determine what should be covered. And she may be on to something.

“There has to be some sort of greater impact, whether it’s boiling it down to facts and figures, or this is what you are going to see as a taxpayer or as a person living on this street,” said Theisen, SPJ’s Region 6 director.

KSTP-TV is achieving hits with stories that cover important information. According to Theisen, stories that reach the “impact” standard achieve significant traction on their website.

“Once you put it in front of them on a silver platter and say, ‘this is how it’s going to affect you,’ then they take an interest,” said Theisen.

It is not enough to consider what the public needs to know. Now, reporters need to continually be thinking, ‘in what ways can I make readers care?’

Andrew Donahue is a Knight Fellow at Stanford University and former editor of Voice of San Diego. In a January 2013 article for Nieman Journalism Lab, Donahue discussed his experience covering last year’s city council elections with the Voice of San Diego.

“We made a public call: We’re coming to your neighborhood. Show us what needs fixing,” wrote Donahue. “We then sent a reporter into each district for one week.”

The reporters spent time with residents to understand what issues mattered most in every district. Reporters conducted extended interviews during “ride-alongs,” where local residents drove reporters around to show them parts of the city in most need of repair.

According to Donahue, the Voice of San Diego wrote about the needs residents identified. Then, reporters brought that agenda to the candidates to ask how they planned to handle it. Donahue cited development, infrastructure, parks and transit as the most important issues for the majority of residents.

“Perhaps that’s all obvious, but damn it was powerful. People loved it. They drove us all around their communities to point out the tangible problems that needed fixing,” Donahue explained. “We immediately had a stronger connection with San Diego’s neighborhoods.”

So how can we start to apply this type of thinking to everyday coverage? Identifying creative ways to get the public’s opinion before the story can help identify the angle to take, according to Donahue. Afterwards, Donahue recommends that reporters advocate for plans to address the issues and “become a part of the resolution.”

The Internet has given control to the public to determine what’s most important. If journalists hope to continue serving as the gatekeepers, they may need to engage citizens and establish interactive relationships.

I believe this means that journalism must accept greater responsibilities if it hopes to maintain its current role and maintain an inherent value that supersedes the value of the Internet. Because, as former Chicago Tribune reporter Casey Bukro pointed out during the panel discussion, “While we debate what the gatekeeper does, the fence has disappeared.”

View more Wells Memorial Key Centennial Celebration coverage here.

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