Category Archives: engagement

News Preferences and Engagement

In the Nov. issue of the the Communications of the ACM (CACM) Pablo Boczkowski has an article on “The Divergent Online News Preferences of Journalists and Readers.” The argument Pablo makes is based on a series of studies he and collaborators have executed around the world. His data shows the extent of the mismatch between the “top” stories as selected by journalists and the most viewed stories as indicated by many online newspaper homepages. For instance, a thematic comparison of such top stories on the Chicago Tribune site showed a 17% gap between  journalist (e.g. politics, economics) and consumer  (e.g. sports, weather, entertainment) preferences. The less readers pay attention to the “meaty” core journalistic topics of politics, economics, and business, the less they are able to make important political decisions and meaningfully participate in civic life … so the argument goes.

For starters, I’m glad that this kind of work is getting done because it does explicate how out-of-touch journalists seem to be when making editorial decisions about what is important to their readers. On the other hand, a few things make me uneasy about accepting these conclusions lock-stock-and-barrel. For starters, viewership is not a great metric for engagement. From the data Pablo has collected it’s clear that people may be clicking into the soft news moreso that the hard, but what about time spent with articles, or commenting behavior? Both, I would argue, are better measures of more meaningful engagement. In other words, even if less overall people may be clicking in to the “core” journalistic stories, if the engagement is deeper and more meaningful (e.g. generating comments or discussion) then the argument above becomes weak.

Another factor that makes me cautious of these results is that news has become increasingly nichified online. Even if there is less attention given to core journalistic topics on mainstream news sites, the traffic trend could be explained by there being better options for more in-depth, detailed political information available through other outlets. The mainstream media is left playing the least common denominator (with wide appeal) while other outlets specialize in the “important” core journalism (e.g. ProPublica) which would attract the more interested folks away from the mainstream outlets.

To try to address these concerns I’d like to see Pablo’s experimental protocol repeated but this time looking at the top commented articles. I suspect this will show different levels of engagement across topical genres. To counter the second criticism, one method would be to employ a large (N > 1000) panel of people willing to let researchers log their news surfing behavior. This could help quantify the extent to which people consume niche “core” information at different outlets, and at different levels of detail.