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Appeasing the Google Gods

I can no longer file a story in our computer system without filling out a box, a small gray square that may well determine the future of serious journalism.

The box is supposed to contain words and phrases that will help me reel you in. Search has become a journalistic obsession on the Web, and with good reason. Most people don't read publications online, patiently turning from national news to Metro to Style to the sports section. They hunt for subjects, and people, in which they're interested.

Our mission -- and we have no choice but to accept it -- is to grab some of that traffic that could otherwise end up at hundreds of other places, even blogs riffing off the reporting that your own publication has done. If you appease the Google gods with the right keywords, you are blessed with more readers. So carried to a hypothetical extreme, an ideal headline would be, "Sarah Palin rips non-Muslim Obama over mosque while Lady Gaga remains silent."

Every newsroom in the country grapples with these questions, and The Washington Post is no exception.

"There's news we know people should read--because it's important and originates with our reporting--and that's our primary function," says Katharine Zaleski, The Post's executive producer and head of digital news products. "But we also have to be very aware of what people are searching for out there and want more information on...... If we're not doing that, we're not doing our jobs."

In a recent interview, Politico Editor-in-Chief John Harris said he tries to serve the site's "core audience" rather than "chasing a huge number...I'm not expecting a reporter who covers an essential policy subject or covers lobbying in Washington to be among our huge traffic drivers."

David Carr observed in his New York Times column that headlines, once clever or catchy, are now, in online form, "just there to get the search engines to notice...The need to attract attention from computer-generated algorithms sometimes makes the headlines seem like a machine thought them up."

But the dilemma goes well beyond headlines to what content to post on your site, and people like me are hardly exempt. If I write about Radar revealing Mel Gibson's abusive calls to his girlfriend, or the coverage of Tiger Woods' multiple mistresses, my traffic will undoubtedly soar above that for a sober report on how nonprofit groups are pursuing investigative reporting. Like most of my colleagues, I try not to let that affect my judgment, but it hangs in the ether.

Newspapers, of course, have always chased circulation, dating back to the days when editors used racy headlines or sensational crimes to goose street sales. The tabloids still play this game.

But now, for the first time in history, newspapers no longer have to rely on polls and focus groups--or crude guesswork--to determine their most popular offerings. Instead, editors know instantly how many hits a story, column or blog is getting -- and can adjust their strategy accordingly. What's hot may get bigger display; what's not may shrink or be kicked off the home page (which makes a statement, even if most readers don't come in through that front door).

"When people worry about whether we're straying from our mission," says Marcus Brauchli, The Post's executive editor, "what they're worried about is are we overemphasizing a photo gallery about a celebrity in hopes of generating traffic. Are we impairing our ability to do good journalism in the areas that matter most to us? And the answer to that is no."

 While The Post is a general-interest paper, its mandate is covering Washington "as a place for people who live here and work here" and as "a seat of power," Brauchli says. Of course, he says, the goal is "connecting our journalism to the greatest number of eyeballs possible. There's a great deal of skepticism among old-school journalists about these practices."

As if to underscore that The Post's priorities are paying off, four of the top 10 blogs always involve politics, while two chronicle the Redskins and one is Celebritology, an aggregation of bold-faced gossip. That seems like a healthy balance.

But minute-by-minute temptations remain, even if organizations don't follow the Gawker model of paying writers bonuses for pieces that draw the most hits.

On a recent Wednesday morning, some Post editors were frustrated that the primary election results weren't garnering many hits -- despite the fact that John McCain had just won his party's nomination and Lisa Murkowski was on the verge of losing hers. What was hot, the traffic directors said, was Elin Nordegren telling People that her life had been "hell" since her husband's sex scandal, a photo of an alligator in the Chicago River, and a video posted on Gawker of a British woman throwing a feral cat into a dumpster.

On the same morning, the hottest Google search was for Alaskan election results (in that Senate race in which Murkowski lost to a political unknown backed by Palin). Next up were Atlantic City air show 2010; Hurricane Danielle path; Nicole "Hoopz" Alexander (winner of a VH-1 reality show and Shaq girlfriend), and Kat Stacks (a buxom blogger who dishes dirt on celebrities). No, I wasn't familiar with the last two either.

Zaleski says such trend research is used mainly to tweak headlines and search terms. But, she adds, "what we're realizing is that we can't live in a vacuum, where we decide what people want to read."

Some sites make no bones about packaging policy pieces with NSFW photos. Female critics have taken particular aim at the Huffington Post, whose approach to blogging, headlines and aggregation have made it a huge success. In recent weeks, Arianna's site has included such prominent headlines as "Elizabeth Hurley: My breasts are natural"; "Miley loses virginity, flashes Brazilian wax in new movie," and "Heidi, Spencer & Former Playmate Exchange Profanities Over Sex Tape." One recent day, the site's second most-popular story was "Katy Perry Shows Off Her Curves, Wows on Letterman"; another, it was "When 'Real Housewives' Wear Bikinis."

But no publication is exempt. On Friday, the second-most e-mailed Times story was headlined "For the A-Cup Crowd, Minimal Assets are a Plus"--a feature contending that these days "it's not uncommon for women with modest busts to flaunt what little they've got."

Naturally, those who grew up as analog reporters wonder: Is journalism becoming a popularity contest? Does this mean pieces about celebrity sex tapes will take precedence over corruption in Afghanistan? Why pay for expensive foreign bureaus if they're not generating enough clicks? Doesn't all this amount to pandering?

Potentially, sure. But news organizations such as The Post and the Times have brands to protect. They can't simply abandon serious news in favor of the latest wardrobe malfunction without alienating some of their longtime readers. What they gain in short-term hits would cost them in long-term reputation.

The cynical view would be that Senate primaries are out and animal videos are in. But the track record suggests that enough people have an appetite for good reporting that the feral cats can be kept to a minimum.

Now let's see, what sizzling search terms can I enter for this column? Tiger Woods, multiple mistresses, Sarah Palin, Elizabeth Hurley, Katy Perry......

By Howard Kurtz  |  September 7, 2010; 12:50 PM ET
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