September 21st, 2008

How Newspapers Abdicated the Front Page’s Influence and How They Can Get it Back By Linking

by

The front page of the newspaper used to set the news agenda. Extra, Extra, read all about it! But that influence has steadily waned through the TV and Cable News era, and the web now threatens to obliterate it entirely.

So who sets the news agenda now? One significant influence is a guy with nothing but a page full of links (you know, the kind that “send people away”).

In a post the other day, Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza called Drudge “the single most influential source for how the presidential campaign is covered in the country.”

That’s quite a claim. Chris adds in a parenthetical:

A quick note to preempt the inevitable argument that Drudge’s influence is overblown. Tomorrow morning, take a minute to look at the stories Drudge is highlighting. Then, later in the day, watch a few cable channels to see what stories they are talking about. It will open your eyes.

As to the particulars:

The increase in positive McCain stories featured on Drudge has coincided with more skeptical coverage of Obama’s candidacy. In recent weeks, Drudge has featured in his center well spot: A picture of Obama shooting at a far off basketball hoop with a subtitle asking “Will he get his groove back?”; an image of Obama sweating on stage at the Democratic National Convention during the Illinois senator’s acceptance speech; and heavy coverage of the “lipstick on a pig” comments.

Interestingly, Greg Sargent over at Talking Points Memo took issue with Chris’ example of Drudge’s influence:

This strikes us as an unfortunate example, particularly in a column arguing (as Cillizza does) that the source of Drudge’s power lies in his influence over the cable networks. Because one of the stories ignored by Drudge actually got a whole lot more coverage on cable yesterday than the one Drudge pushed all day in that supposedly hypnotic banner headline of his.

But Greg’s push back is on the particulars, not the question of whether Drudge influences the news agenda at all:

Look, far be it from me to question the notion that Drudge has influence over network producers. Of course he does. But if we’re really going to devote so much time to flacking Drudge’s influence, how about a real and nuanced discussion of it?

And he adds at the end:

If Drudge is going to consume our attention, how about a real discussion of Drudge and what the Drudge phenomenon says about the journalism profession — one that goes beyond the narrow question of how influential he is?

Indeed, I agree the pertinent question is not the magnitude of Drudge’s influence. The real question is: WHY is Drudge influential at all, when all he does is link to news?

The answer is that Drudge, along with Google, figured out that in the web media era, when all news content is accessible by anyone, anywhere in the world, and no news brands no longer have a monopoly over news distribution, the power of influence lies in the ability to FILTER the vast sea of news.

Newspapers were once THE most important filters for news. But they gave up this role on the web, because they didn’t see that the web analogue to what they did on the front page in print was NOT taking the same content and putting it on a website front page. In fact, you could argue that this is the single biggest mistake that newspapers have made on the web.

What they failed to see is that the web analogue to the newspaper front page is LINKS to where the news IS. That’s Drudge.

The web is about CONNECTIONS, and newspaper website front pages don’t connect anything to anything. That’s why they have so little influence.

And here’s a hard truth about the current newspaper web strategy: Focusing exclusively on local isn’t going to bring back the influence of the newspaper front page.

Newspapers can’t just set the local news agenda. They have to set the WEB news agenda.

So while newspapers focus on new modes of content — video, audio, photos, interactive graphics — they are missing the BIG opportunity on the web.  The opportunity to regain their position of influence.

And newspapers won’t regain that position of influence by hosting more content, whether it’s multimedia or user-generated.

Yes, any one piece of content can be very influential, but systemically, content is not the source of influence on the web.  (Think about that for a while.)

LINKS = Influence on the web.

If newspapers want to regain their influence, they have to focus on LINKS.

The web, after all, isn’t really about content. It’s about connections between content, people, and ideas.

So before anyone in the newsroom gets trained on Flash or databases or digital video, they should receive the most fundamental training that anyone who works on the web MUST understand:

How to link.

You know, <a href=”WHERE THE NEWS IS

Is there ANY newsroom out there that trains their staff how to link? (If so, please get in touch.)

The lessons of how to be influential on the web have been around for a decade.

Isn’t it finally time to learn them?

Comments (14 Responses so far)

  1. [...] Link out. Tags: link economy, links, news, online news [...]

  2. [...] [From How Newspapers Abdicated the Front Page’s Influence and How They Can Get it Back By Linking] [...]

  3. [...] single most influential source for how the presidential campaign is covered in the country”). How Newspapers Abdicated the Front Page’s Influence and How They Can Get it Back By Linking The front page of the newspaper used to set the news agenda. Extra, Extra, read all about it! But [...]

  4. Drudge’s true influence is not in the stories he chooses to promote each day, but more in how the smartest journalists wake up every morning thinking about how to get their story (link) on Drudge ATF. And, if it’s not the smartest journalist thinking this, it’s at least the smartest producers and editors. It bothers journalists to say Matt Drudge is influential – they are much more comfortable acknowledging the Drudge web site as a source of traffic.

  5. But where does Drudge get the news for his headlines? Newspapers still employ more reporters than any other medium today, and they are responsible for producing most of the news that Drudge and other online “journalists” link to. Most of the online linkers and news aggregators are not doing original reporting. So who is really setting the news agenda?

    David Weaver, Journalism Professor, Indiana University and University of North Carolina (Fall 2008)

  6. Traditional newspapers had a monopoly on distribution. That’s gone.

    It’s not obvious to the average editor that filtering, sharing via links, and routing readers becomes the role for new media. Rather than keeping people, we send them away via links.

    To the editors, readers will leave. Better to influence their path when they leave.

    -Dash
    http://adecon101.blogspot.com/

  7. David,

    Agree that the news agenda is created from the original reporting, so that sets the baseline. But not all original reporting is getting the same attention, and not all of it is getting the attention it once did.

    It’s not longer enough to report the news. Now you need to get people to pay attention to it.

  8. David, for us it came down to letting go of our anger about it. It’s not fair, Drudge, Huffington, etc… don’t do original content (Huff does a little). It really infatuated us that those sites and others take ours and others content for no cost and monetize it themselves. They live off the work of others. It’s not fair, but that doesn’t matter. When Huffington Post can open a local bureau in Chicago, one of our cities, with 1 paid staffer while we have numerous staff writers, editors, etc… You realize the world has changed and it doesn’t matter if it’s fair or not. The majority of media outlets are going to have to move to an aggregated model including the heavier use of freelancers. It’s the same thing that happened on the classified side. Craig has what, 10 total employees? The traditional, and alternative media companies can’t support the same level editorial investment we used to and compete with much smaller entities that can simply take our content without paying for it and monetize it themselves. It’s not fair, but that doesn’t matter.

  9. Let’s take a step back for a minute and ask a question that’s been bothering me for a while. Is this a really a question of journalism, or a question of distribution? That may seem obvious to most of us, but the truth is the distinction can help newspapers. Sure, newspapers can alter their design and strategy to be more Web friendly (instead of applying the print mentality to the Web) but would it really make a difference. Seems to me that two types of people use a site like Drudge: a) people who want pseudo-customized content that is filtered by a like-minded editor b) people who don’t know how to fully harness the power of the Web to find their own information, and prefer to go to someone who has already done the work for them. If newspapers danced to this tune, they not only give up any remaining notion of objectivity and independence, but they will also have to start applying a filter based on political/religious and cultural imperatives. If that’s the case why not solve the problem completely and turn newspapers into magazines? Also at the root of all this is one glaring omission. Why are cable television networks get a pass for being lazy SOBs who let an untrained barking dog like Drudge set the tone for content?

  10. [...] the web, links are influence, either through establishing paths between content “nodes” or through their [...]

  11. [...] How Newspapers Abdicated the Front Page’s Influence and How They Can Get it Back By Linking. You really need to read this Scott Karp piece, and the comments. At the moment, aggregation and linking do seem to be the winning strategy. [...]

  12. [...] Will algorithms replace human editors on the web? It’s a bogeyman question on one level, but ask any news site about the percentage of traffic they get from search engines — and what the trend looks like — and you’ll realize that algorithms are increasingly deciding what we pay attention to, what is important, what is relevant. It’s part of how journalists and news orgs have abdicated their traditional roles on the web. [...]

  13. I’d argue that links are being replaced by comments as the primary influence on the web.

    I’ll read a well-written article to completion, ignoring only a few of the links, opening others in a new tab or window. More intriguing to me are the comments and the ‘meta-opinion’ I glean from them.

    For example, say, I read an article from a respected technologist’s blog about a piece of stereo equipment. This article is much like an article that would have appeared in a newspaper 15 years ago without comments. Now, however, after reading the article, if I’m considering this item as a purchase, I carefully read the comments that follow, such as, ‘This item is terrific…no problems,’ ‘This item sucks,’ ‘Terrible! Nothing but problems,’ ‘Awesome…best I’ve ever owned,’ etc. By the end of the comments I have a fairly good idea of how my anonymous counterparts feel…that’s what influences me, not the number of embedded links to other articles.

    I’m also hyper-sensitive to ‘astroturfing,’ so when manufacturers’ reps add their two sense to pump up the ‘meta-opinion,’ I smell it a mile off.

    Links are great, but when I click them, I still follow through to the comments…that’s what most important to me and also the reason ad supported websites, Google, Facebook, et al, don’t influence me either.

  14. How To Unleash the Power of “Disguised Hypnosis”…And Instantly Master the Arts of Influence and Hypnotic Mind Control!

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