Much Ado About Something

Angels online fandom is ablaze about comments published by Orange County Register sports columnist Jeff Miller. In summary, Miller suggested that the reason Angels fans aren’t sobbing over the departure of Francisco Rodriguez is that these fans might be racists.

Click Here to read the article.

You can read all the fan comments at the bottom of the article to get a sense of the near-unanimous reaction.

Jeff Miller is a longtime sportswriter for the Register. He’s better than this. The column is very much out of character for him.

Which suggests there was a reason for this inflammatory column.

I’ve mentioned before that I dabble in local politics. I’ve developed many ongoing relationships with reporters at all the local papers.

A few months ago, I was told by a Register scribe that management had implemented a new performance measurement for columnists. Because newspapers are struggling with the transition from print to online journalism, it had been decided that the number of comments posted online to a writer’s article would be a performance measurement.

As you might imagine, the Register writers rebelled against this. Posted comments have nothing to do with the quality of the article’s content.

I bet I could generate plenty of replies to this article if I wrote a screed demanding that all puppies be drowned. That doesn’t mean the article was particularly intelligent or well-researched.

It’s the same logic used by certain fan sites who claim they’re “popular” because of all the posts by clueless foulmouths with nothing better to do than have an online temper tantrum.

The performance measurement also suggests that Register management somehow tied the number of posted comments to advertising rates. Newspapers sell subscriptions, but make much of their money by selling ads. Advertising revenue has dropped catastrophically in recent years due to the Internet, so figuring out a way to capture ad revenue online is difficult. It appears that Register management may have decided to use the comment count.

“We’ll charge more to advertise on Jeff Miller’s page because he gets a lot of comments!” the logic may have been. “That means a lot of people read him!”

I mentioned yesterday that the FutureAngels.com Blog is the #4 highest-read fan blog on MLB.com. I was stunned because I don’t see a lot of comments posted. I don’t particularly care, because I’m not writing just to generate comments. I write because I have something to say — which is the reason why most writers write. But it clearly showed that the number of comments doesn’t translate into number of hits or unique visitors per day.

(A “hit” means someone came to the page. A “unique visitor” means a person visited in a day. If you come to this site ten times today, you generated ten hits but you’re only one unique visitor.)

And most readers are probably ignoring ads anyway. You probably visit sites that have plenty of ads. Many fan sites are littered with them. You ignore the ads and read only the content that interests you, right? These advertisers pay in several ways. One is “impressions,” meaning they simply pay a flat fee (which is usually close to nothing) for placing their ad on a page. Another method is a “click-through,” meaning someone actually clicked on the ad and went to read more about the product. These pay more because they actually generated a potential customer, but again they pay very little because few people ever actually click on an ad.

This is one reason why the FutureAngels.com web site doesn’t have ads. I tried it a long time ago. I wound up with a lot of ads but no click-throughs. (Clicks-through?!) I finally decided I didn’t want to litter the site with ads, and chose to go the NPR route — make a donation if you like what you see, and help to keep it alive.

But the Register is a commerical enterprise, which is a different business model.

Most newspapers put their content online for free. So why pay for a subscription? I stopped subscribing to the Register long ago. But I still read their articles online.

The Baseball America model, which I think is the most logical one, is that if you subscribe to the magazine then you get both the printed edition and access to online articles. If you don’t subscribe, some articles are free but many are not.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Little Rock newspaper that covers our Arkansas Travelers, shows you the first couple paragraphs but you need to have an online subscription to read the entire article.

If the Register went to one of these models, it might be annoying for those of us who are used to reading online for free, but it might also take the pressure off their writers to write inflammatory columns just to generate posted comments. Writers could return to writing intelligent discourse instead of trying to start flame wars.

So hopefully this adds some perspective for Jeff’s column. I don’t agree with the content. But I suspect the motive behind the article was a little rebellion against the performance measurement.

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