If there's such a thing as being fired vicariously, it happened to me last Wednesday. My former employer, the online magazine Salon www.salon.com) facing a severe revenue shortfall, axed 13 staff positions, including the media columnist--the job I held before coming to TIME last year. That a handful of writers were fired (EXTRA! SUN RISES IN EAST!) probably doesn't concern you much. But why they were fired should.
Or should I say, why they were canceled. As both Salon brass and writers agreed, the decision was a matter of "page views," the number of viewings of each article, tracked by software. Page views are to online publishing what Nielsen ratings are to TV, but far more accurate, down to the last eyeball. They're also called "hits," and it's no small coincidence that the Web community shares the term with the crack-smoking community. Knowing what topics draw the big numbers is just as addictive and, potentially, every bit as toxic.
When I wrote for Salon, the FTR (full traffic report) would arrive in my e-mail like the bluebird of low self-esteem. A hit-count list of the previous day's articles, it would range from tens of thousands (say, a cover story on a sex scandal) to a few thousand or less (say, mine). The writers' room in hell has a similar setup. There's nothing to make you question your career goals like discovering that your take on the post-Tina Brown New Yorker was empirically proved to be 10 times less interesting than Jennifer Lopez's butt. I'd jokingly ask friends to read me twice, at home and at work (alas, reading your own story 50 times is futile, since the page-view software counts only one hit per computer).
Now Salon could have canned me several times over if it cared only about numbers, and no one ever told me to change my writing to appease the hit gods. But why would anyone need to? Few writers with mortgages to pay and access to these numbers could forget about them. Granted, online media hardly invented this conflict. Magazines have long researched who reads what how often, while authors now deal with publishers who know with frightening accuracy how many books they've failed to move, and can check their unpopularity minute by minute on amazon.com Nor is this just a concern of Internet magazines. TIME publishes magazine articles and original content at time.com other magazines and many newspapers put all their articles online. As more readers find us online, we smug print writers too will have to face the FTR.
And why not? There is a certain arrogance in assuming that we mandarins know best what the masses should care about, and maybe page views are a populist corrective to that. But it was hard enough already for journalists--online, in print, on TV--to balance what people will reward with what, in our informed opinion, matters. With this irrefutable math, it may become impossible. "A lot of issues that are important in the long run are kind of wonky," says Salon's erstwhile media writer, Sean Elder. Subjects of limited appeal, like international news, may survive in niche publications, but what about general-interest ones like Salon (or TIME)? Ciao to classical music. So long, Sierra Leone. And goodbye to the quaint notion that readers should care about anything beyond their existing interests. The media of tomorrow will be poised to give you exactly what you want. But you might think twice about whether you really want that.