Rick Outzen: Quality journalism can’t be measured by social media clicks

Last week, Gannett Company announced its latest contribution to journalism, the “Newsroom of the Future.” Its newspaper reporting will be driven by digital metrics, such as page views, clicks, traffic source referral patterns and social boost.

The newsroom will have a content coach, community content editor, engagement editor and producer. Reporters must not only write, but also be public ambassadors through community outreach and connect with readers through social media. They will work with the content coach, content strategists and audience analysts to shape storytelling to meet audience needs and interests on every platform.

Gannett is run by smart people. It is the largest newspaper chain in the country. The company makes billions of dollars. Its leaders have done their research, held their focus groups and know what they are doing.

However, I can’t help but wonder how reporting driven by metrics would have worked in the South five decades ago. In the 50s and 60s, white Southerners didn’t want to read about repealing Jim Crow laws, integration and civil rights. Most newspapers shaped their coverage to avoid those stories and preserve their advertising and subscriptions.

A handful of newspapers ignored the possible financial ramifications and took the charge against racism. In Greenville, Miss., Hodding Carter II, publisher and editor of the Delta Democrat Times, wrote about the spread of White Citizen Councils, business organizations that opposed racial integration. He dealt with boycotts and physical threats. One article was attacked on the floor of the Mississippi House of Representatives as a “willful lie by a nigger-loving editor.”

Had Carter been a reporter in the “Newsroom of the Future,” I’m not so sure a content coach, content strategist and audience analyst would have allowed his articles and columns to be published. Social justice does not generate clicks or have a big social boost. Bikini photos and drunk coeds do much better on every platform.

Journalism is more than catering to a community and luring readers to retweet articles and like them on Facebook. It is challenging the status quo and, at times, making the comfortable uncomfortable. Journalism is asking readers to think about things that would rather not ponder, such as cronyism, poverty, homelessness and discrimination.

My role as a newspaper publisher and owner is to make our readers care enough about those issues so they will try to solve them.  To hell with the clicks.

Rick Outzen is the publisher and owner of the Independent News in Pensacola, founded in 1999 to provide an independent voice on the issues facing Northwest Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

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