Living and dying by the click

March 30, 2017 01:30

By Pat Duggins, RTDNA Contributor

When is broadcast journalism more like QVC? How about now?

I’m just finishing up a Master’s degree at the University of Alabama. Four hundred radio newsroom leaders, both commercial and non-profit, took part in my survey about internet audience data. Those are the computer programs that count the number of “clicks” a news story gets on a station’s web site.

News directors, reporters, GM’s, and other staffers can learn instantly what’s being read, and what’s being ignored. I used the survey data to study how newsroom leaders perceive this stream of internet data, how they use it, and how it influences future story selection.  

Among non-profit radio news managers (NPR stations), 86% say they track internet “clicks” this way to determine the success or failure of a web news story. For commerical managers, 58% say they do as well.

I chose this topic because of the way the internet is changing how we do business. Some reporters worry how fast web stories can live or die based on the number of internet clicks.

The television shopping network QVC, and its rolling tallies of successful sales, comes to mind.

The stream of web data also appears to be giving the audience more power on what topics get covered. Scholars call it “gatekeeping.” Up to now, journalists have owned the “keys” to that gate, and were free to make editorial decisions on their own. With web audience data, they may spend more time sharing that authority with internet visitors.
Of my respondents, 74% say they’d run a story similar to one that gets lots of clicks on the web. Also, 62% say they’d run a follow-up story based on that topic’s popularity with the internet audience. And 63% of news directors say their own bosses require news staffers post to social media, while 60% of GM’s tell newsrooms to post photos and videos online.

There are arguments for and against relying on audience clicks to see what stories work, which ones don’t. In the survey, some respondents wrote how they worried about how fast internet stories are posted, maybe without proper verification. There were also complaints about the short attention spans of web visitors. On the other hand, newsroom leaders say they liked how fast the internet connected them with their audience.

As internet-based news grows in popularity, living and dying by the click is likely to be something we’ll all have to get used to.

Pat Duggins is News Director at Alabama Public Radio.