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Editorial policies and reader ratings

We have an e-newsletter program, and at the bottom of each online article, we have begun surveying readers with one simple question. How informative/useful was this article? They rate their answer on scale from 1-5 (obviously could lead many ratings to land on 3 as neutral). We just started this program so anticipate a flood of data beginning to pour in over the next few months. I feel increasingly hesitant over the "importance" of this data when considering my colleagues' desires to drive future articles and initiatives from the results.

What information is out there that can inform me further on the validity of this kind of data gathering and/or how to analyze this data with a big grain of salt?

-- Myra Lavenue (email)

Excellent authors and editors do what is right and what is good for their point of view. That's why they are authors and editors; they are creating and structuring information for readers. When great authors are asked the question (as in the Paris Review series) "Whom do you write for?" the usual answer is "myself." Or, similarly, Paul Rand, the great designer, offered his clients a choice: they could take it or leave it. This is my view. Some consider that this is elitist. Well that is what it takes to do good work. And besides I'm trying to make everyone part of the elite by writing and teaching!

Whether such noble thoughts apply to a newsletter is something to think about. But you do want to tell your audience new and provocative things that might not always please them--and many in your audience may welcome something fresh. So display some intellectual leadership. And exactly how much are you willing to pander?

Of course you need to think of your audience and also to pass some kind of market test. But why not let people vote with their subscriptions and not about every damn single article? Subscribers decide on the basis of the entire publication, and quite fully express their views by whether they continue to read the publication.

When you do such finely detailed market testing, you not only bring a lot of suspicious data into the editorial process but also, alas, a lot of marketing types. These marketeers will intervene in the editorial process--and corrupt the integrity of that process. Some in your audience will in turn detect the resulting lack of integrity and see through your pandering.

In addition, omnipresent rating systems contribute to an already over-developed sense of entitlement found among at least some users.

Finally, there are enormous problems with the data here. You have no sampling plan; you have, in fact, not a random sample but rather a sample of lunatics. The strong-minded, opinionated, touchy, and easily offended are much more likely to bother to respond to the questions. If you allow user comments along with the ratings, you may well alienate your writers by showing them crank mail and abusive flames about their work.

Are you going to let lunatics and marketeers micromanage your editorial policy?

-- Edward Tufte

Still More: How Big Was That Orphanage?

From Jim Romenesko's Media News, section reprinting memos leaked from within news organizations:

"Panama City (FL) News Herald chief copy editor Ray Glenn's memo re war coverage Oct. 31, 2001

Deskers: . . . . Per Hal's order, DO NOT USE photos on Page 1A showing civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. [Note: "Hal" is News Herald executive editor Hal Foster.] Our sister paper in Fort Walton Beach has done so and received hundreds and hundreds of threatening e-mails and the like.

Also per Hal's order, DO NOT USE wire stories which lead with civilian casualties from the U.S. war on Afghanistan. They should be mentioned further down in the story. If the story needs rewriting to play down the civilian casualties, DO IT. The only exception is if the U.S. hits an orphanage, school or similar facility and kills scores or hundreds of children. See me if there are any special situations. . . . .

Failure to follow any of these or other standing rules could put your job in jeopardy."

[link updated January 2005]

-- Edward Tufte

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