Analytics at The New York Times
“It’s very easy for everybody to read their own agenda into the numbers.”
-– New York Times editor
If Gawker is an organization whose culture is steeped in metrics, The New York Times is the opposite: an organization whose 164-year history, prestigious reputation, and majority single-family ownership have long buffered its newsroom from the kinds of commercial considerations that metrics represent. In past years, representatives of The Times have publicly taken a dismissive posture toward metrics. “We believe readers come to us for our judgment, not the judgment of the crowd,” said former executive editor Bill Keller in 2010. “We’re not ’American Idol.’ ”24financial struggles over the past several years. The Times has engaged in a variety of cost-cutting measures—including multiple rounds of newsroom buyouts and layoffs—and efforts to boost revenues, such as the introduction of premium products and its famous metered paywall.
The confluence of The Times’s longstanding culture and its current economic reality has led to a fraught relationship with metrics. In The Times newsroom, the use of metrics was:
Restricted: Though The Times subscribes to several analytics tools, such as Chartbeat and Google Analytics, only staffers in certain roles and departments were authorized to view them. Similarly, while the most-emailed list is publicly viewable on The Times website, only a small number of staffers received a regular email showing how many times each story on the list had been emailed. Access to analytics was largely aligned with staff hierarchy—as a general rule, editors could see metrics and reporters could not. However, there were exceptions: some relatively junior online staffers (e.g., web producers) had access to analytics, and access was more widely distributed in online-only departments, such as interactive news.
Discretionary: It was largely left up to those staffers who had access to metrics to decide how (if at all) they wanted to consult and use them. There were no newsroom-wide expectations around metrics, nor were there formalized systems for asking questions of data or drawing conclusions from it.
Rare: With the exception of online-only items such as blogs and interactive features, audience metrics did not play a major role in editorial decision-making at The Times. For instance, while page one placements were a part of reporters’ yearly evaluations, online metrics (including home page placements) were not.
To be sure, The Times is unique—or at least, atypical—in many respects. But the organization’s extraordinary prestige and strong sense of journalistic professionalism, coupled with its ongoing financial challenges, mean that highly relevant questions about editorial metrics appear in especially sharp relief at The Times. These range from the simple (What do metrics mean? Who should be in charge of interpreting them?) to the complex (How can journalists take metrics into account without sacrificing their professional integrity and sense of civic responsibility? What is the right balance to strike?).