While it is old news that the Internet has changed the culture of journalism, that understanding has been mostly anecdotal. Academic research on the matter is a toddler compared to the 20-something millennial that is the World Wide Web.
Writing in Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab, newsroom ethnographer Angèle Christin notes that journalists might say they care more about pursuing the truth than how many online clicks their work snares. But deep down they are intensely interested in how many readers gave their words a look.
The tension gets to the heart of a publication’s goal to balance what readers want to know with what they need to know.
In the Facebook-fueled, anything-goes pandemonium of online “news,” clicks are currency, and all manner of bait is strewn in every direction. Mennonite World Review’s more staid cultural foothold is a relative blessing. “You won’t believe” the top-ten list of ways a publication is more edifying when nary a headline begins with “One weird trick . . .”
“All media sites now rely on web analytics to make editorial decisions,” writes Christin. “But this does not mean that they all use and interpret metrics in similar ways. In fact, each editorial department makes sense of traffic numbers differently. There is not one but several ‘cultures of the click.’ ”
Letters to the editor and online comments are one barometer of what MWR readers find interesting. Over the past year, matters of sexuality and division have commanded significantly more attention than other subjects.
Online statistics concur. Nine of this year’s 10 most-clicked news and opinion pieces at mennoworld.org have something to do with homosexuality and related conflicts.
When a publication’s slogan is “Putting the Mennonite world together,” covering so much discord is cause for lament.
We don’t do it for the clicks, and we don’t do it because we are gluttons for heartbreak. We do it because of a responsibility to inform readers about significant developments — both positive and negative. While some may say they don’t want to hear continued debate, the reality is that almost nothing commands the same level of attention.
That is not to say these pages have to be committed to bad news. Information about the many positive things Anabaptists are doing around the world is always welcomed.
While each publication’s relationship to web traffic and subscriber levels is different, some things are universal. Church journalism has always faced the challenge of balancing editorial freedom with the markets of economics and the needs of Christian community.
MWR won’t be overhauling its content into ranked lists or posting cat videos in pursuit of precious clicks. But we will cover topics people respond to, so long as they are important to the church.