Syria vs Cyrus: The Onion on CNN’s editorial judgment

Elegant, pointed rant in the Onion, courtesy of CNN’s decision to put Miley Cyrus’s VMAs appearance in the top slot of their site:

There was nothing, and I mean nothing, about that story that related to the important news of the day, the chronicling of significant human events, or the idea that journalism itself can be a force for positive change in the world. For Christ’s sake, there was an accompanying story with the headline “Miley’s Shocking Moves.” In fact, putting that story front and center was actually doing, if anything, a disservice to the public. And come to think of it, probably a disservice to the hundreds of thousands of people dying in Syria, those suffering from the current unrest in Egypt, or, hell, even people who just wanted to read about the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

But boy oh boy did it get us some web traffic.

The argument’s not one that purely applies to online news (see also: recent Sun front pageevery Daily Express splash for quite some time). Appealing to a mass audience is one way of trying to keep generalist news organisations in business so they can also do the harder, less grabby, more worthy news – selling sweets to fund the broccoli business. There’s a strong argument too that people are interested in many things: I can care about Syria and Cyrus simultaneously, and if someone who comes for the twerking can be persuaded to stick around for the complex international news coverage then that can be a valid growth tactic for generalist outlets. But that doesn’t mean it’ll happen organically, without a strategy to convert the Miley fans into long-term readers. And it doesn’t mean that giving the two stories equivalent billing is wise, unless you’re making a Mail-style move towards a very specific editorial tone.

You don’t have to stop doing the fun stuff, the cheeky and irreverent things, the entertainment journalism, in order to be a serious news outlet – but packaging and context do still matter online. People who go to your front page – your most loyal readers – notice shifts in your editorial approach to these sorts of stories, and will judge you on these things. It’s a deliberate, conscious editorial decision to put twerking in the top slot or rosy cheeks on the front page. There’s definite sense in promoting what your readers most want to read, and in using data to guide editorial strategy. But the key word in that sentence is guide, not subvert or overrule. It’s not the traffic play the Onion’s really angry about – it’s the editorial strategy that underlies it.