What Types of Readers Should News Sites Ignore?

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Photo: DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

The New York Times needs to do a much better job engaging and interacting with its readers. Or at least that’s the argument of the paper’s new public editor, Liz Spayd. In her debut column, printed Sunday, she argued that the Gray Lady is falling short in this regard:

What The Times and most other newsrooms mostly do now is not so much listen to readers as watch and analyze them, like fish in a bowl. They view them in bulk, through statistics measuring how many millions of “unique” users clicked on content last month, or watched a video, or came to the site multiple times, or arrived through Facebook.

What would prove more fruitful is for newsrooms to treat their audience like people with crucial information to convey — preferences, habits and shifting ways of consuming information. What do they like about what we do and how we do it? What do they want done differently? What do they turn to other sites for?

As Matthew Ingram noted in Fortune, Spayd’s debut effort was not met with sterling reviews. At Slate, Isaac Chotiner called it a “travesty.” “A disastrous first outing,” tweeted Jason Pontin of the MIT Technology Review. “Show me an editor who cares about comments, and that’s someone with the wrong priorities.” (One place Spayd’s ideas went over well: Gamergate’s main hub, the /r/kotakuinaction subreddit.)

There is certainly a fair amount of cluelessness on display here. A quick Google search shows that, like every other major outlet, the Times conducts reader surveys that provide richer information than the “bulk”-level statistics; these help the paper’s management understand, for example, that an audience’s “preferences, habits and shifting ways of consuming information.” For Spayd to act as though it’s a publish-worthy insight to suggest the Times should ask readers why they go to other sites is a bit like a newly minted NBA columnist informing his readers that people should realize LeBron James is a really good basketball player. (There’s also the fact that, like most publications, the Times can glean a certain amount of knowledge just from the data it collects on reader behavior: how long they stay on pages, how far they scroll, where they come to the site from.)

But what’s really at the root of the problems with Spayd’s column is something that animates a lot of misunderstandings: a vague and imprecise definition of “reader.” Throughout the column, Spayd mixes very different sets of readers without establishing the appropriate boundaries: Sometimes she’s talking about paid subscribers, sometimes she’s talking about reaching a “broader” audience — that is, potential readers.

But a paid subscriber is going to look different from a potential reader, will have different preferences, and will be able to tell you different things. There might be some cases where an outlet like the Times finds out what a potential reader wants — erotic photographs of good-looking people without clothes on, for example — and make an institutional and editorial decision not to meet those readers.

It isn’t hard to quickly come up with a list of very, very different sorts of readers. There are the subscribers and daily buyers — the dedicated readers who will stick with an outlet even when it doesn’t live up to their standards. There are those readers’ bizarro cousins, the obsessive haters, who view the outlet in question as an irredeemable, “bias” mess, but who seem to read — well, skim, quickly — every article just so they can comment on how terrible it and the outlet it appeared in are. (Can you guess which of these two groups is better-represented in online comment sections? Hint: Not the one actually worth listening to.) There are the casual visitors, who come when linked, and enjoy the outlet, but have no particular attachment to it over any of a dozen peers; and, of course, there are the drive-by idiots, who stream in by the thousands from Facebook or Drudge, drop something stupidly inflammatory at the bottom of an article on a hot-button subject, and hit the back button, never to return. The less moderation you have, the more drive-by idiots you have — that’s why Twitter is a dumpster fire.

Obsessive haters, dedicated fans, and drive-by idiots can all be lumped together as “readers,” in the sense that they contribute page views to particular piece of content. But they’re coming from very, very different places. The haters and drive-by-ers have no investment in the outlet in question, and are basically there to stir shit up. The dedicated readers are invested in the outlet — so invested, in fact, that they’re already locked in as readers and, in many cases, paid subscribers. There are exceptions, of course — if thousands of your dedicated readers simultaneously get pissed off, that’s useful information — but overall there’s a strong case not to pay too close attention to the feedback presented by any three groups on a day-to-day basis.

You can broaden that point, in fact: Overall, for a given outlet to remain healthy, it’s vital for that outlet to swiftly, with great prejudice, ignore a lot of people who could be described as “readers.” A lot of it is noise, noise, noise. The never-ending threats to unsubscribe that commenters and Twitter users love to brandish are largely empty and often come from people who weren’t subscribers in the first place. A onetime reader who disagrees with a single post he stumbled upon from another site is likely to disagree with many of the other things an even basically editorially coherent outlet is publishing.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the discussion over comments sections, which Spayd views as “the most elemental way The Times can let its audience engage.” Every outlet with comments has its own system, of course — at the Times, when you can comment on an article you don’t need to be a subscriber, but the comment is moderated before it goes live — but the point is that unless you restrict commenting to subscribers and/or moderate your comments quite heavily, which imposes significant costs, you will be hearing from a broad swath of the internet, many of whom, given the nature of social media, are likely drive-by haters or their close cousins.

If you’re going to argue that it’s important to hear from these people, you should explain why they offer more useful information than what can be gleaned from the sorts of audience surveys and focus groups Spayd ignores. That’s why Chotiner’s charge that Spayd is engaged in “phony populism” sticks. It certainly sounds good to say “Open up the comments! Let the readers’ voices be heard!” But who are the readers? And are you sure their opinions matter?