Will journalists start being judged and fired based on their Web stats? That was the question from Salon.com co-founder and author Scott Rosenberg today at a Personal Democracy Forum discussion between media critic and NYU professor Jay Rosen and Dan Froomkin, who was recently ousted as the Washington Post’s White House Watch blogger. Mr. Rosenberg said traditional journalists distinguish themselves from bloggers because they don’t chase after traffic numbers. Gawker’s Nick Denton, for example, created a bonus system for bloggers based on their Web stats in 2008.
Mr. Froomkin’s answer was that newspaper editors are typically “not senstive enough to Web sites,” and cited Drudge and the Huffington Post as sites that have taken important cues from readers.
Mr. Froomkin said his editors told him that they “didn’t think the column was working anymore” and “traffic was down.” “Compared to what?” Mr. Froomkin said. “There were some very banal reasons for traffic going down.” He explained that the Washington Post site lost readers after the site changed formats, and that he was still getting his “sea legs” after the Obama administration took over from the Bush regime in the White House.
“There was of course the money issue,” Mr. Froomkin said. “I was an easy line item to scratch out.”
“What I think is interesting about this story,” he continued, “is that it has a ‘morality play to it.’ It was something that readers clearly said that they wanted, and that I was providing to an extent, that they weren’t getting from traditional media.”
Post Ombudsman Andrew Alexander wrote about the decision to cancel the column and said it was “an often-irreverent online column” and its “slant seemed to attract a large and loyal audience during the Bush administration, but it may have suffered when Barack Obama became president.” He also quoted Mr. Froomkin’s editor Fred Hiatt, who said, “‘His political orientation was not a factor in our decision.’”
Mr. Froomkin said editors “raised the impartial center as a form of religion.” But that’s not going to work in the current media world, he said. “You need to let the journalists do their job.”
“I’m not talking about espousing partisan positions, but allowing them to call the truth as they see it,” he said. “Not offending people is not a business model, you’ve got to have something to say.”