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When journalism is about hits, the craft goes amiss

It is time to rethink Journalism 101.

It's no longer so much about the five W's - who, what, where, when and why - but increasingly this nervous, uncertain business is about the five thousand, five hundred thousand, five million H's.

As in "hits."

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Hit … page view … referral … interaction … unique visitors - all words and phrases being used these days in journalism far more than such stale old ideas as structure, style, content, even rewrite.



When newspapers start confusing "hits" with "circulation," there is an undeniable danger to journalism.


No one is expecting "social media" to go away - though it has never been explained exactly what is so social about picking away at your BlackBerry in a meeting or sitting alone in a room staring at a dusty computer screen.

I'm not saying it should go away - just that those dealing in it need to know what it is and what it isn't.

In the ubiquitous cyberworld of blogs and tweets and anonymous comment, what has come to matter more than anything else is the number of hits a certain story receives. The more hits means, in most cases, the larger the audience, and while reaching more readers and viewers is a good thing on one level, it is also a concern for those who believe journalism is about content and information more than reaction.

When newspapers start confusing "hits" with "circulation," there is an undeniable danger to journalism.

If, as increasingly appears to be the case in the uncertain world of Web publishing, traffic is what matters most - and may one day be the basis for figuring out how finally to make money out of Web content - then it only stands to reason that those working in the business will chase traffic harder than stories.

Why, given that traffic often increases when celebrity is involved, would a journalist risk a low-traffic day by introducing readers to someone they do not already know - regardless of how important that person's story might be?

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An American friend who now does a daily blog for a major U.S. newspaper says he came to realize there were certain tricks to Web journalism that did not apply during his many years as a hard-copy reporter.

The key to increased traffic, he says, lies in striking the hot buttons almost immediately - if possible, right in the headline.

If you can get as high up as possible those magic names and phrases that incite the American public - Sarah Palin, the Clintons, Tiger Woods, global warming, anything to do with sex - then the thousands upon thousands who have signed up for alerts on anything to do with Ms. Palin, Mr. Clinton, Mr. Woods, climate change, sex will come flooding to your page.

In Canada, you can add such names as Stephen Harper and Michael Ignatieff.

The end result should be obvious: lazy journalism. Why search out something new when the old and tried work best?

Why be a storyteller when a ranter will have far more traffic? Why be investigative when instigative is a far quicker route to success on the Web?

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"When journalism becomes nothing more than digital hits, the more provocative you are - often, the more obnoxious you are - the higher the hit count," says Richard Gruneau, a Simon Fraser University professor who studies popular culture and media.

"In that sense, the system pressures you to become a dick. Who cares if what you say is good, let alone whether there is any truth in it or not? When everything becomes opinion, the most opinionated, most strident and least compromising 'journalists' are the ones who rattle enough cages, or inspire enough like-minded devotees, to build the hit count.

"And if you can somehow get the people you piss off arguing with your devotees, then your hit count will really soar."

It is a terrible vision of what journalism could evolve into as it enters a world it so desperately wishes to own, but has little idea of what the available measures in this digital world actually mean.

At its worst, "journalism" could become nothing but a rump world of contrarians slagging the same handful of celebrities and spouting off on the same long-polarized issues.

At its best, however, it could realize that there is a profound difference between hits and circulation, and they should not be confused as one and the same thing.

I am trusting in the latter.

But, in the meanwhile, would all those who did not buy this newspaper kindly go to globeandmail.com and follow the links to this story …

… Feel free to visit as many times as possible.

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About the Author

Roy MacGregor was born in the small village of Whitney, Ont., in 1948. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2002, he worked for the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, Maclean's magazine (three separate times), the Toronto Star and The Canadian Magazine. More

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