Desperate Newspapers Pin Hopes on Annoyed Readers

Categories: Tech
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News publishers have always treated readers like commodities -- because that's what readers are. The real customers for publishers aren't readers, but advertisers. Readers are the product. It's not quite that simple, of course, and more enlightened publishers treat readers with respect and cover the news fearlessly (which actually makes the readers more valuable to advertisers).

But a quick glance through just about any regional newspaper reveals that most publishers, especially corporate ones, aren't particularly enlightened. Those papers are filled with inane drivel and overcareful, "balanced" stories because publishers and news executives believe that's what attracts readers -- or at least doesn't scare them away.

Web publishing was supposed to change all this, in part by empowering readers to respond to the news. The positive effects, though, have been limited, at best. Readers can respond to many news stories in comments sections, for example, but thoughtful responses tend to get buried by angry, illiterate screeds

Comments sections, in fact, are just another way for publishers to commodify readers, and to many publishers, the angry, illiterate readers are no less valuable than sane, thoughtful ones. If comments sections didn't drive pageviews, you can bet that most publishers would get rid of them. In fact, most of what newspapers do on the web is driven, not by reader empowerment, or even journalist-empowerment, but by the short-term quest for pageviews. Many of the tactics they employ annoy the shit out of readers rather than empower them.

Take slideshows. Please. Many news execs love them, because they draw many more clicks per minute than, say, a well-reported (and expensive) investigative news story. When they comprise really good photos that convey information, slideshows can be great. But they almost never do those things. Usually, they're garbage. In the long run, they hurt business, but publishers tend not to think in the long term.

As Alexis Madrigal points out in The Atlantic, smarter publishers have learned that counting unique visitors is a much better metric of success than is the lunkheaded, simpleminded counting of pageviews. But the president of the Washington Post, Steve Hills, apparently loves pageviews anyway. So do many others. Madrigal includes a hilarious graphic showing how reader annoyance (measured in "milliblodgets") increases with every slide. Milliblodgets is a reference to Henry Blodget, the disgraced Wall Street analyst whose irredeemably shallow, reliably stupid website, Business Insider, is perhaps the most awful professionally produced publication ever to appear on the web. It is loaded with slideshows.

The Washington Post is partly responsible for another phenomenon that tries to mine gold from the irritation of readers: forced-sharing apps on Facebook. When one of your friends has the Post's "Social Reader" app installed, everything he or she reads is automatically posted to your newsfeed. If you click on the link, you don't get the story -- you get an interstitial popup demanding that you download the app yourself and register before you can read the story.. Thereafter, every story you view through the Social Reader is posted on your newsfeed, whether you want it there or not.

The Post is far from alone -- Yahoo News, the (British) Guardian and several other publications do the same nasty thing. So do photo-sharing apps like Viddy and Socialcam.

The apps are spam, basically, and the publishers and appmakers are spammers. But the Washington Post (presumably along with its spammer cohorts) is fine with that. Perhaps more out of cluelessness than amorality, the Post has pinned its digital hopes largely on the Social Reader.

On Monday, it appeared that, perhaps, Facebook users had suddenly and all at once decided they didn't appreciate being manipulated in this way. Traffic to the Post's Social Readers, and similar apps from others, apparently dropped precipitously in recent weeks. According to TechCrunch, though, it turns out that the sudden drop is likely due to a change in the way Facebook presents stories. Either way, the reaction to the drop was a universal cheer. People really seem to hate these apps.

Of course, it's not that people don't like to share news stories -- it's the forced sharing that's the problem. If we want to share a Washington Post news story that we've read, we will. It's not hard -- you just paste in the link. What we don't want is to have everything we read to be automatically broadcasted to all of our friends.

But it seems unlikely that news executives will take the hint. Even if forced-sharing apps fail, publishers will move on to some other obnoxious, clueless, desperate tactic. Because that's how they do.

Dan Mitchell has written for Fortune, the New York Times, Slate, Wired, National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, and many others.

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