"Hit Rate Journalism" – A Reflection on Role of Journalists in Internet Era

Sin Wan-kei - Editorial Board member, The Journalist

[Jan 2011 - The Journalist] In the old days people used to flip through real papers for news, but nowadays an increasing number of them are clicking a computer mouse or touching smart phone screens for news. Is the value of certain news stories changing because of their high or low hit rates? As readers begin controlling the value of certain news stories between their fingertips giving us a more direct response of their interests, should journalists still uphold the same news values in this restructuring media landscape?

"Relevancy is the main criteria of internet news", says Jeff Yeung of Yahoo.
In the era of newspapers having a large circulation, people read a morning post during the day or an evening post at night. In the era of news on the net, they are surfing on the net and clicking for news whenever they wish at breakfast, lunch time and even late night.

Information from Yahoo Hong Kong shows there are three peak periods for people reading online news. The first of which is between 10 to 11am when people start working in the morning; second is in the afternoon from 2pm to5pm; and the last is late night from 11pm to 1am.

Director of product management at Yahoo! Hong Kong Limited, Jeff Yeung, said news about technology and gadgets, in addition to the knowledge-based stories, are among the hit topics found on the Yahoo news portal.

For instance, any information about iPhone, or how a giant asteroid might possibly crash into the planet, and the starvation of polar bears are the popular stories viewed on the Yahoo News page.

Relevancy Prevailed

News has always been, and continues to be, a reader-oriented product, but it is becoming more directed to the market depending on the “hit rate”. Previously, only the circulation acted as an index to reflect readers’ interests and, in the past, it was the media professional who dominated the task of interpreting the public and readers’ interests to define the importance of a news story. Now, the hit rate of news stories in Yahoo tells us more directly that readers interests are topics on IT, health and knowledge stories.

“People care about stories such as how frequent they need a herbal tea for better health; whether eating a banana every day might be good for you, and even what health concerns must be taken into account before having hot pot,” said Yeung according to data from Yahoo News.

But are the above stories still regarded as “news” that journalists are trained to write about in order to bring about a public good? Yahoo and newspaper editors are responding to this change in different ways.

Four years ago, in order to enhance their ability to interpret the news tastes of their users, Yahoo Hong Kong recruited web news editors specializing in selecting news stories for their portal. Currently, Yahoo purchases news stories from 13 media outlets in Hong Kong, included printed and electronic media.

Web editors pick the front news story on Yahoo News page; an “editor choice” news section was set up to recommend news stories that might fit the internet users’ taste.

“The news stories on our news pages are kept updated. If some recommended news was found have a very low hit rate, we would make some changes or select another one to position in a more prominent space. Nevertheless, we still keep some boring policy stories in eye catching spaces as we know they are important,” Yeung said.

Even when faced with intensive competition on the net, Yeung said Yahoo avoided using very sensational or violent news on its portal. “We want our news page to be like a broadsheet paper, with credibility, with an established reputation that news selected for our site are true and not just some rumor on the net,” he added.

For newspaper editors, their strategy is to make their news become more attractive when placed on the net, by making them “short and simple.”

Leung Heung-nam, news manager of Ming Pao Daily News, said young people nowadays want “simple and attractive news information” as they read mostly online or using their smart phone.

“News should be tailored made for readers’ needs and interests, in addition with some general knowledge,” Leung said. For example, news about how to prevent injury while training were scheduled for days before Standard Chartered Marathon, as well as some more human touch stories as well, he added.

“Social issues stories are not necessarily the opposite to readers’ preference of news on the net. This does not mean that we have given up on the stories that we used to do, we just need to be more targeted towards our readers’ interests,” Leung said.

New “5 W”

But the reality is the exclusive scoop no longer has much value in the view of news portals like Yahoo. “You need to buy a newspaper to read exclusive stories in the old days. Now, people only need to type in several words on a social networking site to share and spread the news, and then this news is not an exclusive anymore on the internet,” Yeung said.

Besides, there is no such thing as a totally exclusive news, nor an outdated story on the internet anymore. “We know some story might have been published two months ago, like what kind of health conditions a reader should be aware of while taking herbal tea. But readers are absent-minded, and if that news is popular we will give it prominent coverage again, despite similar stories having been run three times in the last five years,” Yeung noted.

Clearly, the internet has brought about a new order for news, and the traditional five Ws taught by journalism schools might need re-defining.

According to Professor James T. Hamiltion of University of California San Deigo, the author of “All the News that Fit to Sell: How the market Transform Information into News”, the new five Ws are:

Who cares about the particular piece of information?

What are they willing to pay?

Where can media outlets or advertisers reach these people?

When is it profitable to provide the information?

Why is this profitable?

As every media outlet and journalist all over the world are finding ways to embrace this change, how journalist should perform a professional role in providing analytical news stories rather than just provide pieces of information is posing a challenge.

Yeung in Yahoo said the portal doesn’t just avoid or neglect serious news stories such as political ones and those affecting minorities, but he found that the supply of such news limited from news content providers.

It is time the journalist reconsidered how to produce good and meaningful journalism that can simultaneously cater to the reading habits of the new “hit rate” news reader.