Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Project for Excellence in Journalism not thinking deeply about Web depth

"News hole" is not an insult but a description of the valley of text surrounded by newspaper ads. It's a finite resource: Even The New York Times is not much bigger than the space required to hold the ads. All the news that fits, we print.

A decade ago when I entered an online newsroom one lure was the "bottomless news hole." The only limits were server capacity, modem speed and, significantly, manpower. The Web seemed to be where readers would gravitate for depth.

Bandwidth has only gotten cheaper, yet the newspaper's bottomless news hole has gone the way of the diner's bottomless cup of coffee. Now the newspaper Web site is all about breaking-news speed. With or without video, it's television on steroids.

"[P]utting things into context, or making sense of the information available, is an area Web journalists still need to work on," argues the Project for Excellence in Journalism in a useful if not startling observation on newspaper Web sites. No, Web sites tried trumping print on depth. It slammed into the twin roadblocks of staff and reader interest.

The emerging Internet convention of the 1990s was to hyperlink everything in sight. Now the Times attempts to automate links to ask.com, which I suspect most users just stumble on from sloppy keyboard use. At least this user keeps getting presented definitions of words passed over. Links in context still requires an editor to size up context, thus their rarity.

Of course, readers now can just Google what they want to know, and the proejct findings rates Google News highly for its mountain of links related to any particular story. Yet those algorithmic sidebars are contextual only in defining a subject, not a way to make sense of it.

Site profiles seemed similarly ill informed. A shovelware site with a few ads gets downgraded for lacking a revenue stream, even though it presents a more viable revenue model than original content supported by stacks of remainder advertising.

Any evaluator that puts the Times on the third tier in depth has his head, as Ted Koppel described presidential polls on "Meet the Press," in an uncomfortable place.

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