A colleague forwarded me the link to this editorial in a recent issue of Nature, "Filling the void", which urges scientists to "rise up and reach out" as newspapers cut jobs, and the number of science journalists in particular decreases. It summarizes the issues facing science outreach quite nicely - more and more younger scientists blog, but science blogs can't introduce the general public to scientific issues, since laypeople don't look for them in the first place.
On a related topic, the March/April issue of Technology Review has an article ("But Who's Counting?") about the challenge of determining numbers of website visitors accurately. This matters because web traffic plays a key role in the rates websites can charge for advertisements, and online journalism is moving toward an advertisement-only business model. The article enumerates the following issues with traditional methods to measure web traffic: "in ascending order of impact, overcounting individuals with multiple computers or web browsers; counting 'mechanical visits' by Web 'bots' and 'spiders' (for example, when Google crawls the Web to estimate the popularity of sites) as visits by real people; and overcounting individuals who periodicially flush out the 'cookies' of code that sites stash on browsers so that returning visitors can be recognized." (I often do the last one.)
The journalist uses a couple of annoying words, like "digerati" and "misprisions" - I consider myself cultivatived, and yet I had to look them up - but overall the article is an insightful read, with valuable discussions on how to use "a methodology inherited from television audience research: the panel", where "panelists agree to have their Web browsing monitored through interviews and through 'meters', or spyware, installed on their personal computers." The issue? "[Panel-based audience research] tends to undercount people who look at sites at work."
A company named Quantcast is currently trying to develop new technologies to measure audience; its website offers an interesting overview of its methodologies; for instance, see here for the "Cookie to People Translation Overview" and here for the complete white paper. Quantcast competes for that business with Google, which plans to leverage its ownership of DoubleClick to combine audience data analysis with the ad-serving system, "so that media planners know which sites are best suited for which ads". This of course raises issues of dominance on Google's part.
Companies that had become used to television's Nielsen ratings might never know their web audience as precisely. But because it's possible to track customers' online behavior - especially when the customers click on display ads - online advertisement might also generate higher-quality data than a more traditional medium like television. After all, companies have never been able to tell how many customers they gained by running a TV commercial during this or that time slot. Managers might be forgetting a bit too quickly the uncertainty of the times they feel so nostalgic about.