Help needed in measuring online newspaper readership

The newspaper industry is in trouble and it doesn’t help that there is not an agreed-upon way to measure online readership:

It’s no longer uncommon for someone to own three or four devices that can access news content at home, work or almost anywhere. This array causes headaches for newspaper publishers and editors and sows confusion for advertisers who want to know how many readers a newspaper has. How should they be counted? Where should advertisers put their dollars? How many readers does an online advertisement reach? What’s an ad worth anymore?

Perhaps as vexing is who is counting readers and who counts them best. Unlike the methods Arbitron and Nielsen use to develop radio and TV ratings, the science of counting online and digital news consumers has existed only for a short time. At least nine companies have crowded into the business of measuring digital audiences over the past 15 years. Each company employs its own methodology to collect data. And because digital technology seems to leap forward almost every day, measurement techniques that were acceptable yesterday may not be adequate tomorrow.

With the money at stake in advertising and prestige, you would think there would be more agreement here. Without agreed-upon standards, newspapers can claim very different numbers and there is no way to really sort it out.

Why can’t newspapers themselves pick a provider or two they like, perhaps one that is more generous in its counting, and run with it as an industry?

Dana Chinn, a lecturer at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, said newspapers haven’t kept up with other industries that do business online.

“There is a stark contrast between the news industry and e-commerce, in that e-commerce is saying analytics is do or die for us because we are a digital business,” Chinn said. “News organizations don’t say that, because if they did they would use the right metrics. All the news organizations I know are usually using the wrong metrics to make the decisions that are needed to survive.”

This is a reminder that money-making today is very closely tied to measurement, particularly when you are selling online information.

From controversial opinion piece to full length book

I was unaware that this was a common phenomenon: write a controversial op-ed in a major newspaper, receive a book deal, and then produce a book that is much too long and that doesn’t argue much. David Bell describes this process:

The syndrome has become all too common. A provocative op-ed piece appears in a major newspaper (for preference, The New York Times). Its logic is fragile and its evidence is thin, but the writing is crisp and the examples are pungent, and the assault on sacred cows arouses a storm of discussion (much of it sharply critical, but no matter). It goes viral. And almost immediately, publishers comes calling. “This should be a book,” they coo, and the author, entranced by a bit of sudden fame (not to mention, perhaps, a decent advance), eagerly agrees. He or she sets to work, and soon enough the original 800 words expand to 50,000. But far from reinforcing the original logic and evidence, the new accretions of text only strain them further, while smothering the original provocations under thick layers of padded anecdote, pop sociology and oracular pronouncement. Call the syndrome Friedmanitis, after a prominent early victim, the New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.

I wonder if I have been a victim of this process. I have read a number of non-fiction books where I thought the argument was thin and the argument could have been effectively made in just a few pages. One problem may be a lack of data – opinion books are difficult to sustain as they often jump from one opinion to another without providing sufficient evidence for the claims being made.

From the book publishers perspective, this process makes some sense. Perhaps the hope is that the op-ed author has more to offer; that if given more space, they can develop a much more substantive argument. Since it is difficult to predict which books will succeed once published, an op-ed that generates attention may look like a sure thing.

At the same time, these op-eds can quickly invoke many criticisms within hours of being published online. By the time a book is released that is built around the same topic, it may be too late to make the argument again (particularly if it is badly argued in the book).

The quest to tweak search results to lead readers to news stories

Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post provides a behind-the-scenes look at how newspapers attempt to position themselves in search engines in order to draw more readers. While these are news organizations with often serious intentions, they have to compete with other popular web topics. Here is what Kurtz suggests this looks like:

If you appease the Google gods with the right keywords, you are blessed with more readers. So carried to a hypothetical extreme, an ideal headline would be, “Sarah Palin rips non-Muslim Obama over mosque while Lady Gaga remains silent.”…

On a recent Wednesday morning, some Post editors were frustrated that the primary election results weren’t garnering many hits — despite the fact that John McCain had just won his party’s nomination and Lisa Murkowski was on the verge of losing hers. What was hot, the traffic directors said, was Elin Nordegren telling People that her life had been “hell” since her husband’s sex scandal, a photo of an alligator in the Chicago River, and a video posted on Gawker of a British woman throwing a feral cat into a dumpster…

Zaleski says such trend research is used mainly to tweak headlines and search terms. But, she adds, “what we’re realizing is that we can’t live in a vacuum, where we decide what people want to read.”

The quest for online eyeballs is one that all online sites are competing in and those who are interested in providing or discussing more serious topics do not seem to be winning the day.

h/t Instapundit