Journalists as windsocks

Andrew Currah has written a thoughtful piece in the Guardian based on his report, What’s Happening to Our News? which he wrote as a Visiting Fellow at the Reuters Institute in Oxford.

As more news consumers migrate online, the clickstream is likely to assume an even more important role. In the future, it has the capacity to not only transform the nature and breadth of the news agenda – but also to redefine well-established values.

In an effort to boost hits and advertising, publishers are already in danger of diluting their brand by allowing it to become the digital equivalent of a windsock – given shape by the prevailing direction of the clickstream rather than by a core of long-term editorial values.

The basic logic of a webcentric strategy is to maximise the size of the audience around the news, for as long as possible. But a rush to generate clicks may in fact erode the distinctiveness of the brand and its connection to a specific audience. By anchoring their brand identities in softer content, news publishers risk losing traffic to specialised sites that provide showbusiness and sports news more effectively – and also to advertisers who are increasingly demanding engaged, rather than transitory, eyeballs.

So what should news publishers be doing? A more viable strategy may be for them to identify and follow ‘editorial isolines’ – points of consistent editorial judgment that would establish them as digital "anchors", rather than digital windsocks. In practice, that would entail a strategic focus on certain kinds of coverage, and audiences reflecting existing editorial and brand values.

The report (available as a pdf download) is worth reading in full.