By Christopher B. Daly
That’s a question that came to mind today while reading David Carr’s latest. In his column, Carr identifies a trend (at least, a trend by journalism standards) of news organizations paying their contributors based on how much traffic their individual “stories” garner. If an item is really popular and brings a lot of eyeballs to the site, the “writer” of the piece earns more money. Conversely, if you write pieces that hardly anyone look at, you get paid less — or nothing.
It all sounds simple and fair and transparent and populist. (This approach puts the “piece” in piecework with a vengeance.)
Only it’s not. The problem with this approach is that it doesn’t take into account that journalism has other values besides popularity. Yes, we want readers/viewers, and we want as many as we can get. But we also want to serve our society by occasionally embarking on stories that are so expensive to investigate that they will never pay back any return on the investment of resources put into them. Or, we sometimes work on stories that matter intensely to a small group of people. And, from time to time, we run stories that turn just about everyone off but still make the world a slightly better place.
Let’s consider how a “metrics model” would have served journalism (and the world) over the last couple of centuries.
–The first story about sexual abuse by Catholic priests was hardly a candidate for “most-read” and yet it began a tidal wave of reporting that ultimately rocked the Vatican.
–The first Watergate story (the one with Al Lewis’ byline, on June 18, 1972) had only a tiny fraction of the readership that the “last” Watergate story 26 months later (the one with the headline “Nixon Resigns” on Aug. 9, 1974)
–Then there was Sy Hersh’s original story about Lt. William Calley and the massacre at My Lai.
One takeaway from those historical cases: some stories need time to build.
–Or what about the columnist Westbrook Pegler? Incredibly popular, but a crackpot who was wrong about everything. His metrics would have crushed the likes of Walter Lippmann (in terms of actual readers, not just people who said they read Lippmann.)
–The first-day stories about the Gettysburg Address barely mentioned Lincoln’s little speech, because (by the lights of the day) it was considered dull and inconsequential compared to the stem-winder of a speech given by the day’s main speaker, Edward Everett. (Who?)
–For a few weeks in 1835, the New York Sun had a wildly popular (and exclusive) story about life on the moon. The paper really racked up eyeballs — until the story was revealed as a hoax. Oh, well. It sure sold papers.
–Or, how about the summer and early fall of 2001? The media were in full cry to “prove” that
the disappearance of a missing Washington intern, Chandra Levy, was somehow connected to married congressman Gary Condit. (Who remembers them now?) You could look it up: this was a huge story for months in 2001, right up until 9/11. Anyone want to go back there?
Just as some stories need time to develop, some writers need time to develop.
What was Samuel Clemens’ first story, for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Nevada? If he had not been given time to develop as a writer, he would have ended up as the funniest steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, but there’d be no Innocents Abroad (his first big success), not to mention no Huckleberry Finn. What about the first news stories ever written by Ernest Hemingway? Is there a new Martha Gellhorn or Joan Didion chasing clicks today at Gawker?
If we only work on stories that are popular, we might soon become so popular that we won’t matter any more.