In the 1980s, when the online possibilities of news publishing were starting to become clearer, a smart man told me something that I started telling other journalists: "One of these days, we're going to find out what people actually want to read."
Presstime: Nielsens for the Print World. As Publisher Augustine Edwards told USA Today in December, “I am not of the school that says, ‘Eat porridge, it’s good for you.’ I’m focused not on what people should be reading, but in uniting them around what they want to be reading.” Among other plans, Edwards says he wants to base reporter salaries on how many hits their stories generate. This, many say, could be the state of American journalism in the near future if standards aren’t put into place to prevent it.
He was referring to the granular nature of data. We can't know what people are reading in the printed newspaper. We can know exactly what they're choosing to read online -- or at least what stories they're starting to read online.
Someone has to decide what stories get to the top of the first page. Maybe it's editors. Maybe it's the community.
If popularity rules, then the nature of the community will be what counts if we believe in serious journalism. Attract people who believe what they read in supermarket tabloids and on Fox News, and they'll make decisions in a certain manner. Attract other kinds of folks, and they'll make other kinds of decisions.
(Updated to correct spelling of "Nielsens"; thanks, Scott.)