We all know editors used to be named Perry White or Lou Grant and decided, gruffly, what stories reporters should cover. But nowadays, online, a whole bunch of news organizations, all the way up to Yahoo News, are using search trends to determine what articles they assign to their staff and freelance reporters.
A lot of old-line writers think this idea is evil. I don’t. Here’s why.
The traditional news-writing model does assume the editor is king, and that reporters are his knights. The king knows what’s best for his subjects, and one of the things he worries about most is letting advertisers and other self-interested parties influence editing decisions.
I got into the non-fiction writing game (back in pre-Internet days) primarily as an investigative and feature freelancer for Baltimore City Paper, an aggressive alternative weekly. An awful lot of my best stories started with someone I met in a bar (or wherever) saying, “Hey, Rob, you ought to write about [fill in here].”
Quite often, City Paper editors, and editors at the (daily) Baltimore Sun (for which I also wrote from time to time) told me they wondered how I managed to come up with so many interesting, unusual, and reader-pleasing stories.
Usually, a sly smile was my only answer.
Later I worked on a website called Slashdot, where we routinely solicited interview questions from readers. I also got plenty of, “Hey, Rob, you ought to interview [fill in here],” emails from readers. I answered almost every one of those emails, and some of them led to some of our most substantive interviews.
Representing the readers
As reporter and editor, on paper or on the Internet, whether writing general-interest local news or tech news for a niche audience made up of extremely intelligent people (like those of you who read this site), I have never believed I had any Journalist Super Powers.
I have a pen, a notebook, and tools to record better-quality audio and video than most people. Beyond that, all I have is time and a little knowledge of the fields I cover, plus an address book full of peoplev who know more than I do about almost everything from Linux kernel development to escalator safety.
Essentially, I view myelf as the readers’ representative. I talk to people they’d talk to themselves if they had time, and do research they’d do if they had time.
For example, here’s a New York Times article about how Yahoo is using searches to steer news coverage. Here’s a key paragraph from it:
Search-generated content has been growing on the Internet, linked to the success of companies like Associated Content, which Yahoo recently bought, and Demand Media, which has used freelance writers to create an online library of more than a million instructional articles.
I’ve done a little work for Demand Media. The pay was awful and their tight style guidelines made sure anything I did for them was boring to the point of stupidity. I’ve looked at Associated Content, and they pay even worse than Demand Media. And, frankly, this shows in the quality (or lack of quality) in their average article.
These two companies have gone a long way toward giving the idea of “search algorithm-based” based article assignment a bad name. But there’s nothing wrong with the idea itself.
When you think about it a little, it’s nothing but a modernized, computerized version of me sitting in Baltimore’s Club Charles back in the 1980s, listening to a City Paper reader saying, “Hey, Rob, you ought to write about [fill in here].”
And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that as a way to come up with story ideas, is there?