Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) officially launched this week. AMP helps news stories load fast in mobile Google search (placing them at the top of results since page load is a prime factor in natural search results). While tightening the guidelines for content on AMP pages will, it is hoped, eliminate crappy ads that turn off users, others see AMP as "a central part of Google’s maniacal mission to clean up the mobile Web and boost search revenue on mobile."
In a story about AMP, one of the participating media company execs said: “Would it be better to have three graphics that are side by side?" (versus one interactive graphic that can weigh down a page and slow its load.) "You have to think about this with every story you create.”
Not so long ago, the most significant decisions about how to draw a reader to a story were the headline and the position of the story in the newspaper or magazine. This was largely driven by the "gut feelings" of top editors, and minimal feedback like snail mail letters to the editor. Beyond newsstand sales -- which were referendums on the cover images -- and some occasional focus groups, editors had not a clue who was reading what. Their highest measure of vindication came when other news organization picked up their stories.
The ad side did a fair amount of research about what readers liked and didn't about publications, but presented the findings to the editors on bended knees and with bowed heads, palms uplifted -- with the loudly exclaimed caveat: "We would not pretend to tell you how to change anything!"
Now editors have to please not readers, but distribution channels from social media to news aggregators, from search to recommendation engines. And all of this activity is driven by the simplistic notion that if someone clicks on a story, or socializes it, they like it.
Since I am The Center of The Universe, it is worth noting that I click on scores of stories that I hate or think are written by cretins, because 1) I am a news junkie and 2) it is part of my job and 3) I have a lifelong interest in what has happened to journalism in this country.
With so many digital publications out there (most of them crap, but worth a read every once in a while), discovery is harder than ever. True, there are lots of apps or desktop programs that promise to deliver exactly the news I want from nearly anywhere around the globe, but I find most of them very difficult to fine-tune for optimal results since my interests are all over the map.
So with the wheat comes a fair amount of chaff. I pay close attention to the stories that my Facebook or Twitter friends point to (well, at least the headlines) -- especially Mookie Tenembaum, who, I am convinced, is online 23 hours a day gobbling up news and POVs from around the world.
So while I acknowledge the role that the Googles and the Facebooks and the (insert your favorite) play in helping us find stories to read, I continue to be concerned that editors have forgotten that their audience is readers, not machine-learned algorithms.
And I would argue that pandering to the lowest common denominator in order to enhance clicks will ultimately hurt more than help. Even the "gut-guided" editors of yesteryear knew that foreign affairs and economics were far less well-read than the police blotter and celebrity gossip, but they understood that such stories were necessary for an informed public.
The digital era has put enormous pressure on the craft and economics of journalism. Let's hope that having to write and edit to the standards of distribution channels -- especially in our mobile world -- is not yet another nail in the coffin.