Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Readers Crave Crappy Story

By Bryan Gruley

Shit is popular in The Wall Street Journal.

This may come as no surprise to liberals who stoop to read our editorial page or conservatives who insist we’re soft on Obama.

But I mean it quite literally.

On March 25, the newspaper that employs me as its Chicago bureau chief published a story about giant bubbles that had formed in a manure pond in Indiana.
See it here:

The story quickly ascended our “Most Popular” lists ranking the articles viewed and emailed most frequently by readers. As I write this blog, it remains at Number 6 on the most-viewed list for the week.

On one hand, I’m happy to report this, because I love quirky-but-true stories like this one; because the reporter, Lauren Etter, works for me; and because I edited the story. And, icing on the cake, it made the most popular list for all of our readers and our WSJ peers to see.

But the rankings--now standard in newspaper, magazine, blog and other websites across the U.S.—bother me. Does the effort to quantify quality tempt us, however subtly, to focus on coverage we think will please the public and look away from stories or subjects that readers or viewers might not want but arguably need to know?

I suppose this marks me as a dinosaur, or at least someone taking things a tad too seriously. Lighten up, Gruley: these lists are just a fun way of seeing what people are reading about, a nifty window on the day’s water-cooler chat. And I haven’t heard reporters or editors talking about pursuing a particular story because it’ll make the most-popular list.

But I have heard people try to end arguments about the relative merits of a story by declaring that it made a most-popular list, as if that were definitive. By that standard, of course, Kelly Clarkson is a finer musician than Van Morrison and James Patterson a better writer than Ian McEwan--and the National Enquirer a better paper than The Wall Street Journal

Of course writers and producers crave readers and viewers. That’s how we justify our existence and, no small matter, pay the bills. But now that we can measure with a greater degree of precision what it is they like to consume, do we gravitate, like a Procter & Gamble or an Apple, to giving them what they want to hear?

News talk shows on radio and television do so every minute of the day, on the left and the right, with Rush Limbaugh telling his fans what they want to hear, Rachel Maddow doing the same for hers. But the people who actually gather and report what happens in the world have to guard themselves against playing to one constituency or another. It would undermine their credibility, of course, and as a crass business matter, risks alienating a big chunk of audience.

Perhaps our inability to predict what people will gobble up will protect us. Some years ago, my former WSJ colleague Roger Thurow wrote a story about a young African girl who had a fistula—an injury to the urethra caused by sexual relations at an abnormally young age.

We had no most-popular list back then, but judging by the emails, letters and calls Rog received, his story would’ve shot to the top. Had we asked readers ahead of time, though, whether they would like a story about a fistula, I doubt many would have said yes, please.

Who really knows what readers desire? A story about shit ponds in Indiana, apparently.

We who write fiction and secretly hope to hit the New York Times Bestseller list face the same dilemmas, and the license to make things up doesn’t make it easier. Do we consciously write what we think our audience wants, create characters that will attract more readership, concoct plots that play off the evening news? Do we create virtual focus groups in our minds? Or do we just try to tell a great tale? Do we write from our hearts or our heads?

My next book: a teenage vampire writes a memoir about her childhood learning magic in the catacombs of the Vatican.

What do you think?


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sara Paretsky said...

Bryan, I think your question sums up the most profound issue we face as a republic these days. The slashing of news rooms, the 24 hour news cycle, and letting votes on popularity lead the news all contribute to a lack of reliable journalism. Government has always had its share of scoundrels and cover-ups, but we've been saved by indepth, careful reporting.
I think it's the Pew foundation that showed how the blogosphere allows us to retreat into our own biased viewpoints, so that there are fewer exchanges--outside of vitriol--across viewpoints. I don't know what the answer is but I'd welcome a chance to talk about the problem in more detail to see what you think might be a path out of here.

Bryan Gruley said...

thanks, sara. ironically, the path out is, in a word, money--or, to put a finer point on it, a business model that works. the age-old eyeballs-for-ad-revenue model is broken. a financially healthy newspaper or tv station or blog is more likely to remain independent journalistically than one that's, say, beholden to a creditor that bought the media org's debt at 18 cents on the dollar.

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Michael Dymmoch said...

Bryan, I predict your next book will be an instant best seller and be snapped up by Hollywood.

Seriously, when you please yourself, at least one person will be happy with the book. And if you're also skilled and lucky you have a great shot at selling well.