Stuck in (web) traffic

STUCK IN (WEB) TRAFFIC…. It would appear that, for Dan Froomkin, all’s well that ends well. The Washington Post made a mistake in letting him go, but the Huffington Post wisely snatched him up.

But before the matter fades altogether, Brian Stelter reports on one of the key contributing factors to the newspaper’s decision.

In [Froomkin’s] departure from The Washington Post, there may be a lesson for journalists: keep close tabs on Web traffic.

The Washington Post indicated that a slump in visitors to Mr. Froomkin’s well-known Web column, White House Watch, contributed to its decision not to renew his contract in June. The popularity of Mr. Froomkin’s column was tied in part to its consistent critiques of the Bush administration, and he acknowledges that his page views declined after President Obama took office.

Still, the rationale — even if it was masking other reasons for Mr. Froomkin’s departure — surprised some writers who are uncomfortable being judged by their Web traffic. The Washington City Paper, in an analysis of Mr. Froomkin’s departure, called it a historical marker for The Post, “the first time that a major personnel decision has hinged so squarely on Web hits.”

“It’s an unusual public rationale for serious newspaper people, that’s for sure,” said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University.

That’s true, but I’d add that it also seems like a strange metric for evaluation under the circumstances. As recently as 2007, three of the top 10 most widely read pieces on the WaPo‘s site were written by Dan Froomkin. Given the size of the paper and the breadth of its coverage, that’s extremely impressive for one writer.

In 2008, that was no longer the case, but consider the context — Froomkin wrote about developments at the White House. In 2008, Bush, a lame-duck leader with no agenda, effectively stopped being relevant, as the world’s attention shifted to the campaign for his replacement. Of course Froomkin’s traffic dropped off. Readers had less of an incentive to read about the latest developments at the White House when there were very few developments at the White House.

Maybe, if given a chance, and as White House-related news became relevant again, Froomkin could have rebuilt his audience? We’ll never know.

Either way, the move raises another question. In fact, reading the piece about editors firing those who see traffic drop-offs, I can’t help but wonder if the WaPo might replace some of its other prominent political voices — Richard Cohen, Michael Gerson, Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, George Will — if readers stopped clicking on their columns.

That wouldn’t work, would it?

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Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.