Online Influence and Buzz

Media | Building/Consensus

The thrust of this series has been about online influence. Do we even have a good understanding of it? This short concluding piece will raise some new questions for further research.

I'm indebted to Philip Meyer, one of the pioneers of statistical journalism research. In his work on the Quality Project at the University of North Carolina, he has developed the Societal Influence Model. It's a very basic model; the data in his latest book, The Vanishing Newspaper, validates the connections. Societal influence (as opposed to commercial influence, which newspapers also sell) is associated with circulation and credibility. They tend to go up, and down, together. More circulation leads to more profitability, which leads to more spending on staff, which leads to more credibility.

From this model, I'd like to break down the operations of a newspaper (or any media endeavor): it not only needs to get the story out; but it also needs to get the story right.

Much of the aims of technologies of social media is on getting the story out: syndication, blogging. All of these work to amplify a story, and bring it to new audiences. Not surprisingly, the practice of social media sits comfortably within the field of marketing.

Contrasting with social media I have defined constructive media (see “The Yin to Social Software's Yang”). This is the practice of getting a story right – usually through multiple re-writes, often for successively larger audiences. I originally conceived of constructive media as taking an idea off of a mailing list, writing a document, and getting constructive feedback, and then updating the document. Wikipedia turned out to be a good example of constructive media.

In Meyer's model, getting-it-right (credibility) is correlated with newsroom investments: a larger staff, and in particular, more copy editors. With online journalism, the editing process extends beyond the newsroom. The more people that read a story, the greater a chance that any errors can be corrected. But there may be considerable exceptions to this rule. An audience may behave more passively under certain circumstances, perhaps when encountering secondary sources. (If a blogger cites a newspaper positively, the reader may not be inclined to read the newspaper article as critically as if he'd come upon it on his own.). Furthermore, a publisher may simply not be interested in revising it in beyond the first time.

Much of the focus of the TimesSelect critics was on the social media angle — that it reduced the influence of the columnists because it reduced their reach. When the paywall ended, their reach expanded once again. But little thought was given to whether they'd be getting it any more right. I discuss these briefly below in the topics syndication and vindication.

SYNDICATION: Getting the story out

Let's review our buzz rankings. It's not clear that popularity/reach is a good predictor of credibility. At the top of the list is Michelle Malkin, and #4 is Hugh Hewitt (not to mention that in the last six months, Michael Moore, Bill O'Reilly, Ann Coulter are off the charts). It is difficult to fairly summarize their writings in one sentence, so I will just cite their recent book titles: Hewitt (If It's Not Close, They Can't Cheat: Crushing the Democrats in Every Election and Why Your Life Depends On It); Malkin (Unhinged: Exposing Liberals Gone Wild). When George Will (#8) anchored the conservative commentariat a quarter-century ago, he turned out books with titles like Statecraft as Soulcraft: What Government Does.

If that betrays a liberal bias on my part, I'll also add that I find the left-spleening Huffington Post to be a den of hackery. I may agree with the politics of its typical writer on loan from Hollywood, but it doesn't change the fact that any number of pieces are full of sloppy assertions. For every genius like Josh Marshall or Glenn Greenwald, there are hundreds of party hacks in the blogosphere. Felix Salmon, blogging at Conde Nast's, suggested recently that the Times would have been better off trying to snare any of the 1,800 people who started blogging at the Huffington Post. It's hard to imagine that it could have done that without bleeding credibility.

Many blogs – like talk radio and cable news shows – have eluded Meyer's influence model for daily newspapers. Instead they use the tabloid approach: simpler, subjective, sensationalized. This combination appears to attract an audience, and sufficient advertisers, without going the route of classical “quality” journalism. (I emailed Meyer and asked whether he'd considered tabloid news in his model; he said that he hadn't yet, and was welcome to seeing that research come along.) Suffice to say that the norms established for blogging favor the quick over the deep. The quicker blogger gets more links, and thus more buzz, and more influence.

Even on a single Op-Ed page where the columnists generally write once or twice a week, we've found a range of buzz measurements. At the Times, the top ranked Op-Ed columnist, Thomas Friedman, had four times the references as the last ranked, Nicholas Kristof, even though Kristof does a much more thorough job of using social media tools to communicate with his readers. The remaining factors are their writing styles and their outside work (books, speeches, etc.)

In the end, the Buzz Rankings are just a popularity list. It tells us nothing about whether certain columnist is more credible than another – or, on the whole, how credible a publication is (this is what Fabrice Florin's NewsTrust project aims to do.)

VINDICATION: Getting it right

Suppose that a newspaper wanted to effectively collect reader feedback. It could mine the blogosphere for links back to its articles. A little-known service now part of NYTCO is the Annotated New York Times, which does just that, and formats it in way that resembles the current news feed. But the basic problem of blogging is that, despite persistent efforts, it resists structuring. There is no standard way to tell whether a blog post agrees or disagrees or whether it even has something constructive to add.

Of course, newspapers took the obvious step long before blogging became popular: they collected feedback directly. In his first four months on the Op-Ed page in 2003-04, David Brooks's column had attracted 6,800 comments (I counted then). At 200 per column, that was still a higher pace than those from blog posts referencing his name over the last two years. And it's not even counting letters to the editor that readers didn't think to post to the website.

It's also possible that Kristof's internal community is much more constructive than Friedman's larger external community. We just can't measure it as easily.

There's a lot of things that publications have done in the service of getting-it-right, and there's a lot they could further do. A newspaper could set up a discussion forum for each article (not just the “blog” posts). It could unify the feedback mechanism through a form like the LetterVox I have proposed. The editors could ask its reporters to respond to reader's comments (as the Atlantic Monthly does in its print magazine). It could open up its corrections database. Unfortunately, too many publications have been cordoning off their interactivity into the blog sections and thus have been neglecting to make the whole content equally interactive.

While reading through dozens of columns from Tom Friedman over the last six years for this series, I wanted to get a true sense of their influence on readers (what did they think of his June 2001 “Memo from Osama,” for instance?) There was no way to find the responses that came in – the reader letters, whether they ultimately ran or not. after all. But they weren't there. I would have gladly paid for the service of seeing them. Thus while the original “content” could remain free, the essential value of the links connecting content would be an example of a service through PaperTrust that newspapers could offer to paying subscribers.

The Bottom Line

Here's what it comes down to. Obviously, on the web, there is an enormous amount of good information, and much of it is constructive. And this content happens to be free.

Perhaps there is a progressive notion that it must be free so that the neediest among us can afford it. But the money for good journalism has to come from somewhere. The current running wisdom is that it should come more from advertisers. Of course, the discerning news consumer has turned off the wholly-advertising supported evening news; blanches at the notion that public broadcasting underwriters would increase their share of support; likely subscribes to political/newsmagazines which are sustained by vanity publishers or foundations. Neil Postman's admonition about news advertising, issued at the pre-dawn of the online era, still holds true. Journalism tells us to think about the problems and wants of others, but advertising has us think mostly of ourselves.

Truly the public should be the best judge of where its journalism dollars are spent. Otherwise, the spending decisions will be made for us.