News coverage in crisis on the Net

There's an old show-business joke about a play that is failing. A potential theatergoer calls the box office to find out when the show starts, and the ticket agent responds, "How soon can you get here?" As a trade journalist, I sometimes feel like I'm in that failing play. Trade journalism is one of the few environments that empowers employees to tell their employers what they can and cannot do. I'm not talking

There's an old show-business joke about a play that is failing. A potential theatergoer calls the box office to find out when the show starts, and the ticket agent responds, "How soon can you get here?"

As a trade journalist, I sometimes feel like I'm in that failing play.

Trade journalism is one of the few environments that empowers employees to tell their employers what they can and cannot do. I'm not talking about unions vs. management here. I'm talking about the invisible -- and often fought over -- line between "church and state."

Church and state

In journalism, there is an unwritten law that says a publisher can only go so far in telling an employee what he or she can or cannot say about a product or company.

The battle over the line this law draws has been fought for many years -- topmost in the minds of both sides waging it.

Sure, I'm no naïve kid who believes journalists would do what they do without getting paid. And I understand that without advertising there would be no pay check. But I appreciate -- even if some would say it is an illusion -- the fact that I am a few steps removed from the money side of the journalism business.

I can at least assuage my own conscience that I have nothing to do with money-grubbing capitalism and that I and my colleagues are pure of heart.

So you can imagine that I am quite proud of the company I work for when last year in a classic dispute between edit and advertising, Pat McGovern, chairman of the board of parent company IDG sided with edit. Here in PC World's own words is a short summary and victory announcement rolled into one.

"In a surprise announcement, Robert Carrigan, president of IDG Communications, told PC World's staff today that 'Harry McCracken has decided to remain with PC World as vice-president, editor in chief.'

McCracken tendered his resignation on April 30 after [then-CEO Colin] Crawford refused to allow publication of a story entitled '10 Things We Hate About Apple.' McCracken said that the story was killed (it is now running on PCWorld.com) because of Crawford's concerns about the impact it would have on Apple advertising. Crawford denied that was the reason for killing the story, but has since apologized to the editorial staff for the decision."

Technology is the game-changer

Although that particular incident had a happy ending, thanks in large part to the way of the Web, the times are changing for trade journalism. The other side now has a new weapon that takes we journalists one step closer to mammon. In other words, the WWW may have discovered the ultimate WMeD (Weapon of Mass editorial Destruction), as journalism is under fire and taking hits from a less obvious direction.

Advertisers have always wanted to know the number of readers a publication has, the length of time readers commit to reading a particular story, how committed readers are to completing an article, and other methods that quantify the commercial value of the publication's editorial product.

Print or Web, this has always been the case, with ad rates set by circulation, the publication's ability to prove reader engagement, and its ability to demonstrate buying power on the part of its readers.

Prior to the Web, however, these metrics were derived from quasi-scientific readership surveys, seat-of-the-pants intuition, and in part, the ability of the "space" salesperson to convince the potential advertiser that his or her medium sells widgets better than competing pubs do.

This is rapidly changing. Thanks to the Web, the potential advertiser is demanding -- in full knowledge that the publication has the technology to deliver -- pure inescapable statistics and analysis of readership stats.

How soon can you get here?

What I am concerned about is how publications are responding to this turn of events. It is no secret that all online publications are already, some to lesser and greater degrees, tailoring the information it serves up to gain a wider audience, to get better stats, to capture more advertising dollars.

So in the future while I can still criticize Apple or IBM from a "separation of church and state" point of view, if my criticisms fall on deaf ears -- that is, if few people care to read it -- I may not be asked to cover those topics.

I fear that in pursuit of better stats a publication will surrender its editorial judgment -- its expertise in relating to readers what in its estimation is worthwhile for them to read about.

I fear tech pubs will devote less coverage to areas that matter simply because fewer readers are committed to reading a particular story.

And of course, this is not just true of trade publications. Here's the lead paragraph from an article in The New York Times last week reporting on the fact that Lara Logan, CBS's chief foreign correspondent, was being reassigned:

"Lara Logan, the CBS News chief foreign correspondent who deplored the lack of media coverage of Iraq and Afghanistan last week, will no longer be based overseas, the network said on Wednesday."

"Lack of media coverage" of a war no less. Why do you think that is?

Readers lose not just because they may not get all of the news that will affect them, but also because it changes how journalists will think about coverage in the future.

My hope is that this cynical trend, like so many others, will prove cyclical and that, over time, journalism will circle back to more even-handed coverage.

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