Old mantra still valid for New Media

(Read in the Daily Herald)

Useful. Different. Relevant.

Time was, those were the three most important words in the Daily Herald newsroom, as close to a collective mantra as a body of committed skeptics is likely to embrace. Our success depended on our ability to provide information and entertainment that aspired to those three standards. And, to be sure, they’re still our prime directive.

But consider the new vocabulary clamoring for contention: Metrics. Silos. Clickbait. Algorithm. Platform. Curation. Social media. Pageviews. Analytics. Chartbeat.

It’s a dizzying new lexicon, but it’s not only we news media folks whom it affects. It is also you, the reader. Or, you, the user, in a distinction increasingly important to some contemporary experts.

However you characterize your (eek! here comes another one!) news consumption, all these new notions have far-reaching and direct consequences as personal as the management of your local school and as expansive as the election of a new president.

This observation is evident in a broadcast conversation last week between National Public Radio anchor Robert Simon and Bloomberg View columnist Megan McArdle regarding her observations on what I’ll call political isolationism, a belief in the dominance of one’s personal point of view, assumed because it’s the only point of view one encounters. It’s these intellectual silos in which we all find ourselves, their walls strengthened because electronic curators — Google, Facebook, Netflix and practically every web monitor one can imagine — are constantly refining algorithms to select the news and entertainment we consume to assure that we only see that which we appreciate or support. Suddenly, we think everyone must agree with us, because our views and our preferences are automatically served up to us every time we fire up our (sigh, sorry) electronic devices.

“We don’t realize that we’re creating bubbles,” McArdle told Simon. ” … And so it comes to seem that the news universe, that people who agree with you are much more ubiquitous than they actually are. And that leads us to the conclusions that — I mean, I’ve been informed by voters that every single candidate who’s still there is completely unelectable.”

Now, layer onto this isolationist arrogance the influence of Chartbeat or pageview monitoring, and you gain an even greater appreciation for the complex demands for critical thinking that confront you in today’s (whew) media environment. In an article for the website Quartz, writer John West revisits a timeworn conflict for profit-reliant news media.

“In the one corner (is an approach holding) that media companies ought to give readers what they want, and that what readers want is more Kim Kardashian,” he writes. ” … In the other corner (is an approach that) values media not as a function of how much money it makes, but the civic movements it creates.”

And the conflict is mediated now, West notes, by systems, like the pageview monitor Chartbeat, that provide better measures than we’ve ever had for providing data about what information people want.

In a discussion last week with journalists from various Chicago news media, I was interested to note how many of our organizations are integrating into our news discussions data from similar companies that monitor the aggregate web behavior of our users. It worries all of us. Are we making news decisions based on what people need to know in order to become more-informed citizens? Or based on the momentary pleasures they take from the comfort of their isolated information silos?

I was happy to note that all of us strive for a healthy balance in the use of these new metrics. We know how critical it is to take a running inventory of what seems to appeal most to our customers, but we also recognize, as West’s article emphasizes, that analyzing this information is very much an imperfect science.

One that brings us back to our original mantra — useful, different, relevant. Thanks to the algorithms force feeding you what the web thinks you want, you may have to go out in search of that which is different. But we’ll keep that concept in mind, along with a commitment to provide material that’s useful and relevant,

As with so many things, in an ever-more complicated world, the original, simple words are still the most valuable in the vocabulary.

Jim Slusher, [email protected], is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/jim.slusher1 and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.