The audience is right

Hal CrawfordIn this guest post, ninemsn’s Hal Crawford argues that online sites should respect readers’ choice in the news they consume

One thing I find surprising, after a decade in online news and a few years in print, is that the longer I remain a journalist the more my respect for the readers grows. Increasingly the correct attitude to adopt towards the audience seems to be one of respect rather than arrogance.  

Perhaps it is the daily exposure to their reading habits. Perhaps this kind of humility is the natural consequence of experience. But every year it gets stronger: the audience is right.

The audience knows the best stories. The audience can smell the thing that matters. The audience will not take it on trust, but can somehow collectively bypass the speculative and hit on the real.

This is clearer in online news than in traditional media. At ninemsn, the Omniture analytical suite is used to track things like page views, unique browsers and time online. It’s an industry standard, and works by having tracking codes in pages that are activated by the browser. Data is sent to Omniture’s servers and then rendered in dashboards for producers to view on-demand.

You can use Omniture data to track story performance in real time. ninemsn uses an in-house system on top of Omniture, called “the Oracle”. This is a simple tool that uses page view data over five minutes to show performance by article. The editor uses the Oracle to weed out underperformers, indicate when to retire “tired” stories, and show up any blind spots in his or her judgment. It is not a replacement for editorial experience but primarily prevents complacency and assists in knowing how the site is travelling. Without it, you are flying blind.

This is not automatic news. As an editor, you’re faced with hundreds of stories to commission or select, you need to get the right mix and you need to know how to pitch. The Oracle won’t help with that – but it will let you know when you have a stinker on your hands. Selecting and pitching stories are key skills for an online news editor, the cardinal sins being on the one hand a dull page, and on the other a misleading headline which leads to a disappointing story. It is also vital to be able to balance short-term gain and long-term credibility in creating a story mix that suits your voice and mission as a news service.

A consequence of sitting on the analytical tools in real time is that you get a very thorough view of what people want to read or watch. The curtain is torn away – there’s nothing between you and the naked truth. Here is the page view “heartbeat” for Nine News online over the past 12 months:


The peaks in the first six months of the year correspond to, respectively, the Queensland floods, Cyclone Yasi, the Christchurch earthquake, the Japanese tsunami, and the killing of Osama bin Laden.

A lot that is being said about online news assumes that this new-found sensitivity to reader behaviour is creating a “race to the bottom”. That’s not what I see in this data. These stories are big and important and this importance is reflected in the massive page view spikes as hundreds of thousands of Australians come online to find out what is happening.

When I wrote a piece for Mumbrella a while back arguing that to subsidise any kind of “quality journalism” would be a bad idea, News Limited’s David Higgins took me to task. As a counter-example, he used the idea of adding up all the traffic the Walkley Award winning articles would have had online over the past few years:

I’m sure it would make for depressing reading if you judged the value of a decade’s worth of the best Australian journalism against their PIs (page impressions) alone.

Higgins is an insightful thinker – but this particular example sheds light on the negative attitudes of many in legacy media companies to digital audiences. There’s no reason to assume a brilliant and award-winning story wouldn’t generate a good-sized audience online. You’d have to assume, in the absence of other evidence, that it would because people love new and relevant information.

Recognition of this in digital newsrooms attached to moribund print organisations is difficult: relatively few are writing or creating only for the web, so no one is adapting their judgment for the medium; exclusives are held and, at a deeper level, these organisations are still gauging performance by old criteria. It is the model of a classically “disrupted” business: how can the achievements of the digital seedling be recognised in the shade of the print behemoth?

Fairfax’s Greg Hywood has talked about restructuring his company to make digital work – but shifting organisational values is exceedingly difficult. When Hywood mentions ceding control of Fairfax sites to newspaper editors, you know the project is doomed: people who don’t understand online news publishing stories they don’t believe in to audiences they don’t respect. And all the time making less money than they used to. Unless Hywood can pull off a miracle, the structures that create value in digital will be missing.

The keystone in this value creation is understanding the audience. What we have found at ninemsn is that speculative or conditional stories, such as experts warning about something or politicians speaking, generally do very poorly no matter how “important”. It was probably always the case that these stories were the least-read in a newspaper, but the lack of public interest was disguised by the fact that when you picked up a newspaper you got the lot. Like a television media deal, if you wanted the good stuff you had to take the dross. This is no longer the case.

That cuts out a chunk of traditional political reporting and upsets many journalists and commentators, who have narrow views of how news should be used by an audience and see cherished notions of newsworthiness being modified.

Do article page views correspond absolutely to content quality? No – that’s looking at audience on too granular a scale. But articles that don’t get read should not be written. If a story is important it can be, and should be, made interesting. Any Walkley Award winning story that can’t find an audience online is a discredit not to the medium but to the judges.

  • Hal Crawford is founder of Share Wars and head of news at ninemsn

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