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Playing the ratings game?

Journalists and media watchers say hit counts could turn the Web into a ratings-driven mass medium similar to TV. And that could mean programming that relies on sensationalism instead of substance.

Once every week, Bruce Koon, managing editor of the San Jose Mercury News' Mercury Center, logs on a private company Web site to learn which stories people are reading in the company's online newspaper--and which ones they're not.

Like editors at most online publications, Koon has access to precise measurements of reader response through the log files, or "hit counts," that are recorded on the Mercury Center's Web site. Each time a page is delivered to a reader, the results are automatically recorded in a computer file. Editors can know which stories get read, by whom, and even for how long.

But as more people begin to receive news and other information online, some journalists and media watchers say hit counts could turn the Web into a ratings-driven mass medium similar to TV. And, they add, that could mean programming that relies on sensationalism instead of substance.

"It's a tool that should help us serve our customers," said Jon Katz, media critic for HotWired. "If it becomes the well stone of what we create, it's a nightmare."

The technology of the Internet has made newspaper editors privy to this kind of detailed reader feedback for the first time. Until now, besides focus groups about subscribers' interests and tastes, editors largely had to leave it up to faith that readers were actually reading the stories.

For television station managers, on the other hand, ratings are the name of the game. Such information gathered through systems like the Nielsen ratings, which also track audience response, serves as the very foundation for television programming.

But even TV programmers have never had access to the precise kinds of data now commonly available to editors of online publications.

That raises the question of whether online editors will respond to such statistics in the same way that TV stations often do: adapting their coverage to maximize hits by picking stories not because they are important but because they will attract the most clicks. The question is particularly disturbing for new media ombudsmen when applied to online publications, including CNET.

This new breed of news vehicles rely on text like regular newspapers but can take advantage of Web technology to publish quickly and continuously and even use live formats like television. They can also incorporate multimedia such as video and audio clips. But while observers can make analogies to both television and newspapers, most online editors say they make their news decisions the same way any newspaper does: What is the most important story of the day?

Koon and other online news editors say hit counts have some sway but do not determine their editorial coverage. They say the point of looking at the hit counts, along with email and discussion forums, is to keep editors and reporters in touch with their readership, not to influence decisions on what stories are printed and how they are played.

Koon, for example, said hit counts and reader email have improved the Mercury Center's ability to know which stories are of interest to their readers, whether it's an article about Apple Computer or the San Francisco 49ers.

"The Web is an interactive two-way communication between readers and journalists," Koon said. "Print journalism has in many ways become too isolated from readers. Between email and hit counts, journalists will have to pay attention to what the viewing public wants. But that doesn?t mean [journalists] have to abrogate their responses on what is important."

Journalists at online publications, from HotWired to Wall Street Journal Interactive and CNN Interactive, echoed Koon's sentiments. The consensus is that the interactivity of the Web can help close the gap between readers and the media, which often is criticized for being "out of touch."

"We still make our judgment based on the significance of the individual story. Is it interesting? How many people does it affect?" said Jeff Garrard, executive producer of CNN Interactive.

While many editors maintain that hit counts play little or no role in day-to-day decision making, they do admit that the data does impact some editorial decisions.

For example, the Mercury Center tends to emphasize technology stories over general news coverage because the online readers particularly respond well to these kinds of reports. Editors at CNET's online technology news site, NEWS.COM, also said hit counts help determine whether to place a story on the front page of the site.

"If it is news, we are going to run it regardless of the hits it will garner," said Jai Singh, editor of NEWS.COM. "So, purely from an apples-to-apples perspective, no, the hit count has no bearing. Where hits affect our editorial decision is in the placement of a story."

But while most protest that their news judgment isn't dictated solely by the knowledge of which stories get the most hits, some online journalists acknowledge that the counts do carry the potential for abuse.

Hit counts could lead to the infamous "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality. TV programmers make no secret of the tendency to play up stories about sex and violence in a bid to boost their ratings during "sweeps weeks," when Nielsen conducts its semiannual rating survey.

"This is why TV is so bland," said HotWired's Katz. "It seeks to reach the largest number of people."

While online editors may be above those kinds of reactions for now, Katz and other media critics worry that this could change as competition among online news publications increases.

"Hit counts on the Internet are far more seductive than a periodic readership survey," said Ben Bagdikian, professor emeritus of the School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. "It's quick, and it has the illusion of precision. It will very naturally have an influence on news organizations. But it could have a negative effect if it over-influences to give people what they say they want."

Online editors argue, however, that ratings will always have far greater impact on television programming because network time is restricted, whereas the Net is virtually unlimited in the number of stories that can be posted.

"The potential is there. If you have the tools for analyzing usage, then the medium can become a slave to the whims of popular enthusiasm," said Bob Ryan, director of the Mercury Center. "But the beauty for me of publishing in online media is that, because the costs of publishing are so low, there is a real opportunity to resist those sorts of pressures."

Those reduced costs have lowered the barriers to entry and created new competition in the largely monopolistic media business. Over time, many online editors believe that both factors will pave the way for more original, creative journalism.

"It strikes me as a bit early in the game to be a slave to page views, unique domains, or other traffic measures," says Gary Wolf, executive producer at HotWired. "We look at, first, the quality of the programming--admittedly a subjective [decision], but we're editors and producers, and it's our job to trust our opinions. The second factor is feedback from users."

But some online editors believe they will increasingly face the challenge of balancing two roles--determining what readers want to read and deciding what they ought to read.

"One of the dangers of this is we do have a better picture of what's being read today," said Neil Budde, editor of Wall Street Journal Interactive. "One conclusion you can draw is that you stop covering news about Bosnia, for example. This kind of data can be valuable, but it can be pernicious to some extent. There is some legitimate concern."

"I'm not sure it's reached a point where hit counts influence day-to-day news coverage, and I'm not sure I want it to," Budde said. "Interesting news is still interesting news."