Should Online Journalists Bear Responsibility for Their Traffic?

Last Updated Sep 23, 2009 10:22 PM EDT

As many of you know, this is Advertising Week in New York City, a non-stop, wall-to-wall extravaganza of advertising and media industry navel-gazing -- which found me, late this morning, at a panel titled "Traditional Journalism in the Digital World." Sponsored by AOL, it featured three journalists at AOL properties, exemplars of the shot-in-the-arm AOL is giving the journalism business. But to me, you haven't really made the transition until you're actively engaged in and responsible for building your traffic, and also in tracking deeper analytics that tell you how much attention your audience is paying to your content. I'm thrilled that a model is being built by AOL for 21st century journalism, with no legacy costs, like desks and paper, to drag it down. But in terms of this traffic thing, I'm not sure these journalists are there yet.

The three panelists -- former New York Times reporter Melinda Henneberger who now edits; Cotton Delo, who, after a brief stint in print now reports about several northern New Jersey towns for AOL's hyper-local Patch service; and Jay Mariotti, the former Chicago Sun-Times reporter who is now a columnist at AOL's Fanhouse, are obviously thrilled that they have left the world of print. In fact, there was lots of refreshing happy talk -- about how the immediacy of online makes it vastly better than the labored and time-consuming editing, printing and distributing of content via print, how they get in great conversations with their readers and even get to go on trips to cover things, which is a sadly shrinking practice in print. I've no doubt their enthusiasm is real, especially on the part of the older Henneberger and Mariotti, who were able to get out of the print world while many of their former colleagues haven't been able to. As someone who made the transition awhile ago, I know it's pretty revelatory to discover how powerful and immediate this medium is. Nothing beats seeing lots of people commenting to one of your posts or sharing a link to it on Twitter.

Yes, reporting online is different then print, so I asked the panel what seemed obvious questions: Are any of them compensated for traffic? Is it even considered one of their job responsibilities to help build traffic beyond doing the obvious job of creating good content? Over time, I've seen compensation models for online content creation evolve, steering away from adherence to word counts onto hourly rates, monthly retainers, and here at BNET and elsewhere, frequency and traffic bonuses -- so, as I said, these questions seemed obvious. But the adjective I would use to describe what the journalists thought of my questions was "derisive"; I felt they looked down upon such petty concerns.

Henneberger said, basically, that having responsibility for day-to-day traffic took focus off of the long-term." Mariotti said something involving the St. Louis Cardinals and a hot tub -- alluding to the fact that if you have salacious content, of course your traffic is going to go up. He, in particular, seemed to confuse irresponsibly goosing traffic with the practice of working on it day-by-day, like a construction worker building a building.

What I was talking about was something much more subtle, and quite necessary. I wanted to know whether they do things like search engine optimization to ensure the content they create gets noticed. When you work at a newspaper, you bear absolutely no responsibility for circulation, but in online, it's different. Although your work should be measured over the long-term, as Henneberger says, it's also important to play the short game as well. Some smart distribution strategies and a good headline can do wonders for an individual post and you can often see the results in your traffic report. A few years ago, I used to be terrified about knowing how my posts were doing; now, I can't wait to see my traffic -- and to look at other analytics that speak to a post's strength or weakness, such as retweets and comments. It's part and parcel of what I do and as we go forward, I think all 21st century journalists will need to grasp that. I'm not saying that the people on the panel never see a traffic report, but based on their responses, I'm not sure they pay close attention to them either.

As we left the auditorium, I wondered if what I'd asked (it was the last question) was so out of line. But then, a couple of people passed me, and murmured, "Good question." Gee. Thanks.