Questions for Future Research
What do news consumers make of metrics? Existing studies about news metrics, including this one, usually focus on how analytics data affects professional journalists. It would be valuable to have more knowledge about news consumers’ relationship to metrics. Are audiences aware that their behavior on news sites is being tracked to the extent that it is? If so, does this awareness shape reading habits? There is an unfortunate tendency in journalistic and academic circles to conflate readers’ behavior (e.g., a story about Kim Kardashian got more clicks than any other story) with their true desire (e.g., this means readers want more stories about Kim Kardashian than any other topic, even if they might say otherwise).xvii Do readers share the belief that their clicks equal their interest level, or do they see a more complex relationship between their behavior and desire?
Are metrics actually shaping content, and if so, how? There is widespread speculation that exposure to metrics leads news organizations to prioritize fluffy stories that will be sure-fire traffic hits over meaty, challenging ones that are unlikely to draw a large audience. Yet, a couple notable exceptions notwithstanding,xviii there has been little empirical research investigating whether or not this is actually true. For instance, do general interest publications contain more pop culture coverage and less political coverage than they used to? If so, can this plausibly be attributed to the spread of metrics? These questions pose methodological challenges for researchers, but investigating them would enhance our understanding of the effect of metrics on the contemporary media industry.
What is the impact of impact metrics? Future research would do well to examine efforts to create metrics that measure a news story’s impact, judged on factors such as whether a story prompted congressional hearings, lawsuits, or policy changes.xix What sorts of ideas about journalism are embedded in new measures of impact? How do impact metrics interact with traffic metrics within news organizations that are trying to make use of both? What are the implications—both for the press as a democratic institution and for reporters’ working conditions—of judgments based on impact versus judgments based on traffic?