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Humor website oversimplifies the realities of the digital-news biz

Like a lot of the funniest satire at the Onion, a serious message often lurks beneath the jokes. So when the humor website published a fake memo Monday from an executive at CNN.com justifying prominent homepage placement of Miley Cyrus’ dirty dancing at MTV’s “Video Music Awards,” it wasn’t difficult to comprehend the underlying anger.

The Onion condemned the Cyrus coverage not only as a “disservice” to readers but to “the hundreds of thousands people dying in Syria, those suffering from the current unrest in Egypt.” The implication is that those unquestionably more important stories are more suitable to the top of the homepage.

But were the Onion a real news organization, it might understand a more complicated truth behind the uneasy coexistence of Cyrus and Syria in modern digital newsrooms: It’s difficult to subsist on substantive journalism without some help from more crowd-pleasing content.

Don’t tell that to the Onion, which seems to think it’s already figured out what motivates a CNN editor to give prime exposure to Cyrus’ antics.

“If we’re able to get more eyeballs, that means I’ve done my job, which gets me congratulations from my bosses, which encourages me to put up even more stupid bullshit on the homepage,” reads the memo, which carries the faux byline of real-life CNN.com managing editor Meredith Artley.

In one fell swoop, the Onion chalks up the decision to a mix of ego, greed and job preservation. Were it only that simple.

What the Onion does get right is that an editor in Artley’s position must be cognizant of the business model underlying CNN.com and most other websites: maximizing advertising revenues is dependent on maximizing traffic. And so like Cyrus herself, journalists toiling online find themselves occasionally “twerking” uncomfortably close to the groin of their employer’s financial goals.

That’s a pressure that has existed long before the Internet, but has certainly been accentuated by the analytics that give publishing companies detailed feedback of how content performs in a way the print world couldn’t.

While that’s great for understanding what does or doesn’t resonate with users, the sad fact of the matter is that the quality journalism so near and dear to editors’ hearts is often not what drives traffic. That leaves a news organization with three basic options:

1) You can remain in denial that quality alone will prevail despite all evidence of the contrary.

2) You can do whatever it takes to drive traffic and lose any sense of distinct brand identity.

3) You can coordinate a balanced attack between the quality that supports the brand but not traffic with more broadly appealing content that does more for traffic than it does the brand.

If you guessed CNN is going with the third option, give yourself a prize.

As extensive as the Cyrus coverage is, it is a cheap and quick way to yield great results–the polar opposite of Syria coverage, which is likely expensive, time-consuming and an inconsistent audience draw.

But that’s where those who cherish the Syria coverage need to understand that Cyrus doesn’t detract from Syria; it actually bears the weight of traffic demands that Syria shouldn’t be expected to meet. Thus Cyrus is helping shoulder the cost of more substantial coverage that Syria can’t possibly meet on its own.

Fantasize if you must about a Cyrus-less CNN: all substantive coverage, all the time. But as long as CNN needs the kind of scale that keeps it on the ground in Syria and the world over while still dependent on advertising revenues, the organization must be mindful of keeping up audience levels across all platforms. Do you think Syria can carry that load?

Syria can even benefit from a little Cyrus time; there’s something to be said for any kind of content triggering a mass influx of users, which increases the chance they will move on to other content on the site. Come for Cyrus, stay for Syria.

Still, there are those who will insist that Cyrus does not belong at the top of the homepage for even a millisecond because if the statement CNN is essentially making with its placement: Cyrus is more important than Syria. Anderson Cooper would never lead his show with a segment on Cyrus (though he’d certainly get to it in the final quarter-hour).

Before wringing your hands raw over online news, consider that this is a temporary state of affairs. We’re still in the infancy of Internet content delivery, and there’s going to be plenty of innovation in the years ahead. The notion of a home page as one curated idea that the masses consume alike has already begun to be replaced by a more algorithm-driven, personalized approach. No two home pages are the same. If you like your news Miley-free, your browser history will make that clear to your news provider of choice, which will filter what content options you receive based on your behavioral data.

And that’s where privacy issues start to creep in, but let’s save that conversation for another time.

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