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Study suggests newspaper editors are clueless

It’s time to consider an uncomfortable reality: What if newspaper editors are doing a sucky job of picking the day’s top stories?

A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism shows news lineups are far different from the norm when users are allowed to pick their own stories. Here’s how the San Francisco Chronicle reported it (found via Romenesko):

During a week this summer when the mainstream press focused on the immigration debate in Congress and a failed terrorism plot in the United Kingdom, the most popular stories on news sites where the users rank their favorites, like San Francisco's Digg, was - aside from chatter about Apple's new iPhone - not dominated by any one news story.

There are only two ways to interpret this study's implication for traditional newspaper lineups.

1) Traditional editors will blame dumb users for creating a lineup for other dumb people. They’ll say that when users are allowed to pick their own stories, they can choose to ignore what’s actually important. And, they’ll claim the world will end as we know it because everyone’s brains will turn into a pile of mush.

2) Or, the users are right.

Consider for a moment that thousands of users’ combined knowledge creates a more effective lineup than what comes from a very small group of old curmudgeons who create Page One each day.

Newspaper editors are trained in “news judgment” that is supposed to balance what people want to read against what the editors say is actually important. But too often what they’re selecting impresses other newspaper editors, not readers.

"The traditional news outlet wants to put a lot of gravitas on their front page. They want the readers to eat their spinach," said Kourosh Karimkhany, general manager of Wired Digital, which owns Reddit.

Everyone who works online, with its continuous stats about which stories are actually being read, knows that transporting a newspaper lineup to the Web site will spell disaster for page views. Those self-assured editors often pick stories that drop like a rock online.

And, boy, do they think that’s funny. Those silly online readers, they say, don’t care about good stories. With newspaper circulation in a state of perpetual decline, maybe it’s time to consider that print readers don’t like the way you cook your spinach either.

Tailoring news to your audience

The study also showed strong evidence that news must be tailored to match the interests of your audience.

The lineups presented by the user-aggregated lists were different from each other. For example, Digg trended more toward technology stories while Reddit users were more inclined to recommend government news and opinion. This isn't surprising. After all, each Web site attracts a different audience.

Newspaper readers are yet another audience altogether. So it's an oversimplication to suggest newspaper editors should just defer to whatever the folks at Reddit are picking that day. All news is relative.

Comments (5)

Not arguing with the central premise -- that porting the print newspaper lineup to the web is a bad idea -- but is the differences between social bookmarking sites and newspapers really evidence of flawed news judgment? My parents, lifelong newspaper readers, wouldn't know Digg if it fell from the sky and landed on them. They wouldn't read a single story on Digg's front page, most likely. Digg -- and reddit and del.icio.us and insert social bookmarking app here -- attract a much more sophisticated and webby audience than the typical general interest newspaper. Just look at del.icio.us popular on any given day and you'll find stories like "Top 10 JavaScript tricks you aren't using" and "50 Greasemonkey scripts to make your web mail work better." Stuff the vast majority of people wouldn't even know existed. There's probably a kernel of truth in these studies, but my gut says there's a serious problem with the sample populations -- that the two audiences are very different, yet occasionally overlap, making comparisons dicey at best. Not saying that newspapers shouldn't do a much better job at personalization on their websites, I just wouldn't bite so hard on these studies.

In anticipation of a comment just like your's, I wrote that last section called "Tailoring news to your audience."

It would be crazy to take whatever Reddit or Digg lists as it's top stories and use them in the newspaper because they are entirely different audiences, who favor technology news, for example, more than a regular newspaper audience.

Still, if the readers were allowed to choose the news for a regular newspaper, it might be more similar to these self-selected sites and less to the standard, mainstream newspaper lineup. This is evidenced daily by the stats generated by stories on the newspaper's Web sites.

The real issue here is we don't know what the readers would pick because we haven't asked. At least, I only know of two sites that have asked.

USAToday.com is quite infamous now for its recommendation engine. And, OregonLive.com uses Reddit to let users rank stories.

It would be interesting to compare apples to apples. Let the editors of a newspaper pick the stories, and then let the readers.

"It would be interesting to compare apples to apples. Let the editors of a newspaper pick the stories, and then let the readers."

Agreed. Completely. I do think there would be significant differences, but just not as extreme as using Digg or whatever would indicate. We're only matters of degree apart on your post.

I think there's a lot of money to be made figuring out how to marry up editor selected news and self selected news into a completely-personalized-while-gently-guided product. People should get what they want, but we all know that sometimes it's hard to find what we have on our sites. And I read dozens of things a day pointed out for me that I would have never selected on my own. This is proof to me that there's room for something between totally self-selected and totally editor selected.

The study's a long way from perfect, and I think there's been a huge amount of overinterpretation of it. For a start it considered Delicious which, while it brings me new information, isn't necessarily the same as social news.

There's also the question of what social news engines like Digg and Reddit do - supplement or replace the mainstream. This is related to the tailoring you spoke about, but remember that the mainstream news we get from a variety of sources - even if we're not news junkies.

These sites do not just appeal to a niche, they fulfil a supplementary role too. Much like, say, local news but based on interest. Realising how to work with these is part of news organisations realising that they don't live alone in the universe (something that's still a given in too many news rooms).

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