The divide between news and editorial

For readers, however, that divide, no matter how firm, is often viewed as a distinction without a difference. “We have readers who’ve been reading the paper their whole lives and who understand those distinctions very well,” says Goldberg of the LA Times. “But, of course, we have plenty of readers who don’t understand the distinctions we’ve spent years and years trying to make…”

I like newspapers. I was the weird guy in high school who had a recurring subscription to the newspaper, and would be found reading the paper in the form room the first thing in the morning. One year, when I was absolutely terrible about it, I kept an entire year’s stash of newspapers in my locker, and didn’t clear it out until the end of the year. (It was a lot of ink and paper.)

I accept, though, that the new Internet age of journalism has meant things are changing. And I think one of the changes lies in newspapers editorials, and the divide — or lack thereof—between the news pages and opinion pages of a newspaper.

Because that’s exactly the point. In a newspaper, you can rely on the position of a piece within the paper — towards the front for news, or the back for opinion — to give you clues about what you’re reading. That distinction does not exist on the web.

We talk about “content” on the web because that’s all the web cares about. The technologies that power the World Wide Web today — HTTP, HTML, WebKit — don’t care about news and editorial, only content. At the end of the day, the web delivers content from server A to consumer’s device B, and no part of the Internet’s infrastructure cares about what the content is.

Which is what?

In a modern day news site (like the Wall Street Journal), everything looks pretty much the same. Go on. Take a look. If you can tell which is the news article and which is the opinion piece just from glimpsing at the screenshots, then I’m guessing you work for the Wall Street Journal.

You can’t rely on a reader peering at the tiny text (“politics” and “opinion”) to determine the type of article they’re reading. And in an environment of sharable content, Facebook, Twitter, Google and the like also don’t help in abstracting away the tiny differences that remain to help readers identify the difference between news and editorial.

Go on. Which is which?

This lack of distinction is why some readers of newspapers don’t seem to get there’s a difference: because everything looks the same. And it’s what the Columbia Journalism Review was touching upon when it discussed today’s WSJ editorial:

The Inquirer’s Jackson, who has served on the editorial boards of three different newspapers, agrees. “Most readers do not [understand the distinction],” he says. “Most readers believe there is collusion between the editorial writers and the news writers and editors, that one reflects the other.”

It’s easy to blame the reader, but the fault lies with the newspaper’s publisher and editors, not the readers. The news publisher hasn’t made it clear that there’s a difference between the editorial webpages and the news webpages.

How do you do it? Use a different template. Different fonts. Different layout. Maybe put big photos of the columnists on the article itself, to make it clear it’s a personal opinion, and not the newsroom’s stance.

Or kill the distinction between news articles and editorial articles, and start delivering opinion pieces that are truly representative of the newsroom’s opinion. They’re all WSJ journalists. Why are news staff and editorial staff any different?

Analytics data can and should be used to improve reporting.

Consumers are generally aware that their web interactions are tracked, and their interests and demographics are calculated. It’s time for editors and writers used that information to improve their reporting for their readers and audiences.

The role of journalism is has always been to inform people about what they need to know. For much of the profession’s history, this has been executed as what we think they need to know. The Internet has shifted that dynamic, as tracking and user profiling has become refined to the point of individuality.

Publications now need to justify their content — and their own existence — to their readers. I argue that readers no longer care about or respect the ‘division between church and state’ that previously divided the editorial and business side of a publication’s operations. Most readers don’t really care about how the media product is created.

Consider a fast-food restaurant: I highly doubt that most customers at McDonalds care about the labor division and food-preparation departments at the restaurant. As far as the customer is concerned, McDonalds is the name of a black box: an order is placed into the box, and the corresponding food items are delivered out of it. What happens inside the box is not the concern or consideration of the consumer.

Most media consumers do not care about a division between a publication’s editorial and business teams. They might say it’s a nice thing to have when told it’s to prevent ownership concerns from interfering with fair, impartial coverage, but I’m going to guess that most already believe that news sources are biased towards their owners anyway.

And if these consumers know about web analytics and demographic targeting (and a fair number do), then as far as they’re concerned, the publication already knows about them. Consumers don’t care that the data might only be held by the business and advertising departments, and editorial staff might not have access to demographic data about their online readers.

To the average reader, there’s no differentiation between The New York Times’ editorial staff, opinion staff, and business staff: it’s all The New York Times.

Given that this is how people are used to interacting with corporations and businesses, it makes no sense for editors and writers for a news publication to be kept in the dark about their online readers’ demographics.

The concern may be that having analytics and traffic data might start a war-for-the-most-clicks, without regard or consideration of an article’s depth of reporting — a fight between quantity and quality. This is a valid consideration. An ill-thought and misguided implementation of web analytics information into a community of editors and writers may lead to them believing that the numbers are the key to success. They’re not.

But taking advantage of analytics information about readers does not necessarily have to lead to an arms race for traffic numbers and a slippery-slope degradation into clickbait journalism, in the same way that newspaper editors knowing about circulation numbers didn’t always lead to sensationalist reporting.

Analytics information can serve as an additional and previously unavailable source to make decisions about coverage and editorial angles. Editors can improve stories to specifically target their reader’s actual interests and needs, rather than their own perception and assumptions about them.

Doing this means a new balance that must be found. Any publication that successfully pulls up the integration of analytics into the newsroom needs a team of editors who understand data and what it says, and can navigate through the chasm of potential problems to bring out the best of web analytics, while avoiding the pitfalls of quantity-over-quality writing.

Regarding the future of journalism

I’m experimenting with a series of posts regarding the future of the journalism industry.

I’m probably underqualified to write this as a second-year undergraduate journalism student, but I’m also told to say something whenever “something doesn’t feel quite right,” so here goes: the journalism industry is in a critical condition.

There. I said it. We’ve all known the journalism industry has been dying for some time, but I — having spent a sum of zero hours working in any bona fide media outlet — hereby declare the industry as near death. I recognize it’s a pretty bold claim.

Before the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, I was hesitant to make such a point. I knew many people were going to disagree with me, and I was reasonably certain they were right; while newspapers were suffering from a slow and seemingly inevitable death, the news and journalism industry as a whole seemed to be doing all right. It certainly wasn’t the heyday of journalism, but it was all right.

Now, though, it’s become clear: the journalism industry has failed to live up to its role in this elective democracy known as the United States. Whatever your political views and affiliation, the journalism and news industry has failed you.

I firmly believe nothing is more fundamental to a healthy, functioning democracy than a well-informed electorate. The role of journalism — regardless of how it appears or who or what may be playing it — is to inform, educate, and empower the people.

Since I entered the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications over a year ago, I’ve been thinking about the future of the journalism industry, and ways to solve the problems with the model of journalism as it exists today. In these series of posts, I’ll share my thoughts, and I invite you to contribute your views and expertise to this discussion.

It’s time we worked out what this industry should look like in the 21st century.