The Invocation and Disclosure of Selective Metrics as a Management Tool
The fact that reporters did not have regular access to analytics is not to say they were never exposed to this data. Obviously, reporters could always see the limited metrics that are made public on The Times site, such as most-emailed and most-viewed. While editors sometimes expressed annoyance or bewilderment at reporters’ interest in the most-emailed list, they also regularly congratulated reporters whose stories made the list. As one reporter explained:
It’s absolutely routine now that when any desk head sends out their “what a great job we’re doing” [email], it will go, “it was a great week, [so-and-so’s] story shot to number one most-emailed in three-and-a-half hours.”
Again, this suggests that it was not the most-emailed list per se that editors objected to—rather, it was the fact that reporters sometimes interpreted the list in ways that editors did not approve of or agree with.
In addition to invoking the most-emailed list, editors often shared carefully curated proprietary metrics with reporters, often to accomplish particular management goals. One such goal was to increase reporters’ enthusiasm for writing content that would appear only on The Times website, not in the print publication. Researchers studying The Times, such as Nikki Usher and the internal team that produced the Innovation Report on the organization’s digital challenges, have found that The Times continues to locate most of its prestige in the print edition. My own findings strongly corroborated this. As an editor explained:
We have this tradition at The Times that when somebody gets a story on page one for the first time, we order a modern-day version of what used to be like the page one plaque during the days of lead type and, you know, it’s like this aluminum sheet with the page one etchings on it, which is sort of our honorary acknowledgement that they got a story on page one …Nobody wants to get a plaque that shows their story on the home page of The Times.
As noted above, this favoring of the print edition over the online one had material implications for reporters. An online-oriented editor recounted employee evaluations from her time as a reporter:
In my annual review, even though I was an exclusively digital person who was supposed to be pioneering things, there was no mention made of anything [other] than the number of stories I had on page one. That is still the metric that is used for reporters. Over and above everything else.
Given the higher status of the print edition relative to the online one, it was unsurprising that some reporters were not particularly eager to write online-only content, such as blog posts. This could be problematic for editors, who needed to fill The Times’s sprawling website with content, much of which would never run in the print paper. Metrics came in handy as a way to increase reporters’ enthusiasm for writing online-only content, and editors often used them to do just that. In the words of an editor (the same one who was annoyed when reporters advocated for home page placement based on their story’s appearance on the most-emailed list):
One of the things that we’ve tried to do with [audience data] is to use it for other purposes. At The Times being on A1 is a hugely important thing and a huge accomplishment. We’re trying to impress upon people the value of being on the home page, too. And so if you can say, “hey, thought you’d wanna know—your story was being read by 8,000 people at nine o’ clock this morning …” or something like that, then the point of that is just to try to emphasize to people the value of being on the home page.xiv
An anecdote recounted to me further emphasized this theme: An editor had called one of The Times in-house analysts and asked him to pull some historical traffic data for the Bats blog, the paper’s erstwhile baseball blog. When asked why he needed these particular numbers, the editor explained that he was assigning three reporters to cover the World Series game that night. Two were going to write stories for the print paper, and one was going to write for Bats. The reporter delegated to the blog was unhappy about his assignment, so the editor wanted to share some metrics with him to show that his audience when writing for Bats would in fact be bigger than if he were writing for the paper. Thus, unlike the baseball scouts in Moneyball, who found themselves made irrelevant by Billy Beane’s data-driven approach to selecting players, Times editors rendered metrics subordinate to their judgment more often than the other way around. As one editor put it: “If I need to prove a point, I go there.”
At the time of this writing, The Times is taking steps to broaden access to editorial metrics and diminish the organization’s focus on the front page and print edition. Even as circumstances at The Times continue to change, the organization’s longtime status quo with regard to metrics illustrates that data can be mobilized to serve managerial ends in ways that look very different from the Gawker model.