Words in Boxes

Nouns, verbs, and occasionally adjectives.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Readers Are Not News

I know that newspapers are bleeding readers. And I know that advertising revenues are plummeting. But what were the online editors of the New York Times thinking? Why is the front page photo caption of a tragic story a random reader's comment? (click photo to zoom in)

I don't care what Kenneth Ranson of Cleveland, Ohio (or where ever he's from) thinks. He may be a really smart guy. Or he may be off his meds. But we don't know, because the New York Times doesn't know, because they didn't do any actual reporting into who this guy is or what he said.

I read the New York Times because they have the world's best reporters. I don't read the New York Times to find out what random people feel about an event in which they had no part and of which they have no confirmed expertise. I have my own mostly uninformed thoughts, and if I get curious, I can ask for my friends'.

Specifically, I don't read the Times for this:

I will pray for this country and it’s leaders. So should you.

Posted by Kimberly

I saw a ariel photo, and there is another bridge some 100 yards up the river. Seems like the disruption and re-routing will be minimal since there is still a good bridge nearby remaining. Is this true?

— Posted by Kurt Thialfad

And by the way…another reason to consider the benefits of mass transit?

— Posted by Jennifer k

Has it occurred to anyone that Halliburton might have been involved in this?

— Posted by Chaz in St Paul

The current Web 2.0 wisdom is that community participation and content adds value to a website. This is often true for shopping sites, photo tagging sites, and even financial planning sites. It is not true for sites that professionally report news. You don't make money by taking away important screen real estate from your core competency and wasting it on trivia. The Times' real value comes from professional reporters that have knowledge that I, or any number of Kenneth Ransons, simply don't have.

I college, as a general rule I hated class discussions. Too often it seemed as if the professor was filling up class time the easy way instead of taking the effort to actually think and lecture. I (well, my parents) paid a hefty tuition for access to the professor's long-honed academic expertise, not to the expertise of Joe the sophomore from across campus.

That is what I'm afraid is happening here. Reader comments are the cheapest content they can get, far cheaper than methodical and timely reporting. Not that the Times isn't doing quality reporting on this story. But reader comments are not news. Certainly not front page news. Cable news is a far worse offender, plastering the screen with viewer's e-mails and marching them across on the ticker.

Does this all make me an elitist? In the sense that I'm more interested in what informed people have to say than what uninformed people do, I guess so. It's not that I don't think that ordinary people don't have intelligent or interesting things to say, but the job of a newspaper is to filter that information, removing the junk and verifying the truth. If I want uniformed commentary, I'll read a blog.

All that said, kudos to the Times for using a great interactive graphic of the bridge's design for the front page photo.

I'm James Sulak, a software developer in Houston, Texas.

You can also find me on Twitter, or if you're curious, on my old-fashioned home page. If you want to contact me directly, you can e-mail comments@wordsinboxes.com.