Suffice to say, in such a world, the more eyeballs you have looking at each article, the more money you tend to make, so there is a tendency to go for the kind of clickbait style articles and lists beloved by Buzzfeed et al rather than more hard hitting journalism.
At least that’s the perception. A recent study set out to learn just how influential impressions were for news content. It wanted to see if publishers would have a bias in their content towards that which is profitable (ie attracts a lot of traffic) vs that which fits their editorial standards.
How influential is clickbait?
The authors wanted to test their hypothesis that there was a relationship between the traffic articles receive and the length of time that topic is covered in the newspaper.
They examined the output of a reputable Indian newspaper together with the traffic that articles received. It transpired that there was indeed a relationship between the traffic received by an article, and the length of time a story was covered for with follow-up articles.
A few key themes emerged from the paper. Firstly, editorial resources followed traffic, so the more traffic an article received, the more editorial attention that topic received.
Does this become self-perpetuating? Do articles become more popular because they receive more attention, or is there something else at play?
To find out, the researchers took advantage of two things that influence traffic, but should have little bearing on editorial decisions – rainy days and power cuts. These were chosen to reflect days with higher and lower Internet usage respectively.
They found that there was indeed a relationship between the success of the initial story and subsequent editorial attention. So if a story was published on a high traffic day, those stories would receive greater attention than if they’d been published during a power cut.
Interestingly, this was found to only be the case for so called ‘hard’ news, ie things like politics and business rather than sport or show biz. It emerged that an increase in traffic by around 700 visits would correspond to roughly three additional days of coverage for that story, with perhaps three additional articles on that topic.
How to properly use traffic data
The message is that traffic data is undoubtedly useful, but should not be used to blind editors to sound editorial judgement. There are clear examples in the industry of journalists being told to ignore the data and focus purely on the stories, whereas other publications take the opposite approach, with journalists even incentivized by the popularity of their stories.
As with most things, striking a balance is probably the best course of action. Data is undoubtedly important, but it shouldn’t cloud the judgement of journalists or editors into worrying more about traffic than overall quality of output. This is especially important when minorities need a voice in the media.
For more research into what drives news coverage, you may find a recent post on the role Twitter plays in mainstream reporting, with somewhat surprising results.