The Continuing Saga of El Pixie

Ethan’s Axiom #1: If you wish to be linked to by bloggers, write about blogging.

Ethan’s Axiom #2: Taking a swing at the Wall Street Journal never hurts your Technorati ranking.

It’s been very gratifying to see the links per circulation metric – or “El Pixie”, as Quinn has wonderfully dubbed it – make the rounds in the blogosphere. Part of the reason I post research in progress on my blog is that the web, as a whole, is a better review body than any set of colleagues (including my brilliant Berkman friends) could be.

But sometimes the blogosphere is unusually cooperative to this grateful researcher. Jay Rosen was interested in what the Wall Street Journal’s reaction would be to my claim that the Journal had a low lpkc score, and that said score was related to the Journal’s decision to make very little content available for free. So he asked Bill Grueskin, the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Online what he thought. (You can do that when you’ve got the best media criticism blog on the web, as Jay does.)

Bill’s response, quoting from Jay’s post:

Jay: I don’t know enough about the methodology here to make a direct comment on the numbers. One thing I’d wonder is whether he’s including traffic to links from OpinionJournal.com, Dow Jones’ free website run by the Editorial Page. A quick keyword search for “OpinionJournal” on Technorati generates well over 3,000 links, and you get even more from searching for “Opinion Journal” (with a space). You’d also get more from including our other free sites, such as CareerJournal.com.

All that said, I don’t doubt we have fewer blog links than many free sites. We’ve taken steps to get more links, via our nightly emails to bloggers, our new page that displays all free stories, and we’ll initiate some more programs in the next few months. But look, when you ask people to pay for your content, you’re going to distribute less of it than when you give it away. I was no Macroeconomics 101 star, but even I can intuit that one.

And there are plenty of standards by which you can judge the impact of your journalism. Here’s another one: Around 10 p.m. Saturday, Wall Street Journal print reporter Susanne Craig broke the news on WSJ.com that Kenneth Langone is mounting a bid for the NY Stock Exchange. Atop today’s New York Times business section is the following, with a generous credit in the third paragraph: “The news was first reported … on the Web site of The Wall Street Journal.” That’s a link, too– one that doesn’t show up in a Technorati search, but that is visible to many people in our core audience.

In other words, take the links where you can get ’em.

Jay emailed me last night and invited me to respond to Bill’s points. Here’s what I wrote:

As Grueskin suggests, I did not include OpinionJournal.com in the numbers I ran last week. I used what appeared to be the official news sites for the publications I considered, favoring a more popular URL over a less popular one when there was an obvious choice to be made – i.e., csmonitor.com rather than christiansciencemonitor.com. I’m running a larger set of numbers – all 150 newspapers that the Audit Bureau lists – today and plan on releasing those numbers in the next 48 hours or so. To do the Wall Street Journal – and several other papers – justice, I’ll likely need to tweak my numbers to consider multiple sites for media properties like the Journal that use several different URLs.

Giving the Journal the benefit of multiple URLs – wsj.com, wallstreetjournal.com, opinionjournal.com – their Technorati cosmos count increases to 8782. Given their large circulation, that’s still as LpkC of 4.17, which puts them between the Houston Chronicle and the Arizona Republic in the set of figures I posted last Thursday.

In other words, the Journal’s decision to put content behind a for-pay firewall has a definite influence on people’s linking practices. (The simple fact that eight times as many people link to their open opinion section as to their closed content section is also a likely indicator of this.) Clearly, the Journal has decided this is a tradeoff that makes business sense, as your interview with Grueskin elucidates. As Gen Kanai, commenting on my original post puts it: “Ethan, there’s a strong case for saying the exact opposite of your thesis: that the WSJ is the strongest presence online because they’re growing much faster than any other online news source AND they’re charging for their content. I know it sounds counter-intuitive but there was a recent interview with the head of the WSJ Interactive and he was basically very smug about the fact that his publication is a fee-service and that it had the highest growth rates in the industry.”

I’m in no way trying to say that the Journal is making a poor business decision, or that it’s not influential in a community outside the blogosphere, just that the Journal’s solution to the “how do we support a newspaper in the online age” question reduces its influence and impact amongst bloggers.

While I’ve gotten quite a bit of feedback – and some theorizing – on the Wall Street Journal’s low rank, I’ve gotten very little speculation on why the Christian Science Monitor – as well as the New York Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle rank so high. I’d like to believe that the popularity of these papers is somehow connected to the fact that they do international news very well… but I don’t yet have numbers to support that suspicion. I’m working on a set of research scripts in preparation for a talk in Tokyo in early May and hope I will have more numbers before the talk.

Jay was good enough to offer his thoughts on why the Christian Science Monitor is so well-linked. Quoting from his email to me:

I think the reason why CSM ranks higher is that, organized by a logic other than market logic (a social gospel filtered through the peculiar history of that institution), it is more able to follow the advice of the influence model as Phil Meyer and Tim Porter sketch it. See:

http://www.timporter.com/firstdraft/archives/000413.html
http://www.timporter.com/firstdraft/archives/000425.html
http://www.cjr.org/issues/2004/6/ideas-essay-meyer.asp
http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/2005/03/29/nwsp_dwn.html

I think you would find that without necessarily having a whole model like Meyer’s, the editors’ thinking amounts to an approximation of what Meyer has in mind. Or much more in that direction, etc.

Also, the CSM is less likely to share a secular newsroom’s deafness to certain kinds of moral action questions that would interest a lot of the more influential poly blogs… like say UN scandals. Sometimes, Apartheid, this would cut left, sometimes right. Point is it’s a different cut on the news, and it tracks well with bloggers interests.

A cursory summary of the links Jay offers above: Phil Meyer, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina, has recently written a book called “The Vanishing Newspaper, Saving Journalism in the Information Age.” One of the key points of the book – which Meyer explores in the CJR piece – is that newspapers aren’t in the information, content or news business, but in the influence business. They offer influence that’s not for sale (their editorial content) and influence that is for sale (their ad space), and the quality of the former affects the value of the latter.

Meyer believes that print journalism is in a fatal decline – preciptated by the Internet – with most papers pursuing a strategy of “harvesting market position”:

Managers do it by raising prices and reducing quality so they can shell out the money and run. I know of no newspaper companies that are doing this consciously, but the behavior of most points in this direction: smaller newshole, lighter staffing, and reduced community service, leading, of course, to fading readership, declining circulation, and lost advertising. Plot it on a graph, and it looks like a death spiral.

Meyer believes that quality journalism will need to rely more and more on the non-profit sector for fiscal survival, pointing to the journalistic success of National Public Radio, and the Center for Public Integrity. While there are dangers in being beholden to foundations, he argues, they are no more severe than in being beholden to corporations. Ultimately, he argues, “The only way to save journalism is to develop a new model that finds profit in truth, vigilance, and social responsibility.” As Jay suggests, papers like the Monitor may be better positioned to pursue these new models than papers struggling to survive with less news, more ads, a smaller audience and decreased quality.

One of the most interesting responses to my post came from Ryan, a journalist with the Spokane Spokesman-Review, who blogs at The Dead Parrot Society:

My paper isn’t specifically listed in Zuckerman’s post, but based on our cosmos and a daily circ figure of 100,000, we have a ratio of 4.94. This makes us slightly non-bloggy. A few thoughts:

This is a bit frustrating, and maybe even a little embarrassing, because my paper has been at the forefront of the industry when it comes to embracing blogs internally. I was particularly proud of our election blog project last year, for example, and one of our opinion writers has put a lot of energy into developing a community around his blog, even convincing some readers to start blogs of their own…

But now we get to the elephant in our newsroom: The single biggest drag on our “bloggy” quotient is almost certainly our paid-content model. We have an awful lot of great free content, but business-side decisions put our print-first content behind a subscriber wall last year…

Actually, I put the Spokesman-Review’s LpkC a little lower – around 3.81. (I’m using the highest circulation reported by the Audit Bureau, not an average circulation.) But my more recent numbers – which now include about 100 of the top 150 papers – suggest that the median LpkC is around 1.93 (with the mean at 4.93), and that the Spokesman-Review ranks in the top third of American big-circulation newspapers – no mean feat, given the subscription firewall and the fact that the paper is not a “paper of record”.

(I’m about 12 hours away from posting new numbers – my friends at Technorati have been helping me resolve some technical issues, and I’ll share piping hot, fresh data with y’all tomorrow morning.)

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One Response to The Continuing Saga of El Pixie

  1. Justin Mason says:

    ‘Ethan’s Axiom #1: If you wish to be linked to by bloggers, write about blogging.’

    too true — welcome to the echo chamber! ;) they especially love comparisons between weblogs and “old media”, too.

    FWIW, I’ve subscribed — but more from an interest in your other work. lots of good stuff in those archives that I still haven’t got to, yet — worldchanging, geekcorps, internet issues in the developing world, etc…

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