Recommendations for Newsrooms
Prioritize big-picture, strategic thinking about metrics. Most of the journalists with whom I spoke were too busy with their daily assignments to think extensively or abstractly about the role of metrics in their organization, or which metrics best complemented their journalistic goals. Newsrooms should create opportunities for reflective, deliberate thinking about analytics that is removed from daily production pressures. The Times has recently taken an important step in this direction with the creation of a full-time “strategy team,” whose mission, in the words of Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, is “to focus on working with the masthead to identify, develop and prioritize digital initiatives, implementing some of the recommendations in the Innovation Report, and collaborating with colleagues throughout the building to ensure we’re keeping pace with the fast-changing needs and habits of our readers.”29 the team’s first initiatives is to figure out how best to broaden access to analytics in the newsroom by engaging in extensive discussions with the news desks and the audience development team. While it is too soon to see what impact the strategy team will have, its existence is a promising development. Still, most news organizations will not be able to spare the resources for a dedicated staffer (let alone several) to do this sort of internal research and deliberate strategic thinking. This is an area where collaborative relationships between newsrooms and journalism scholars may be fruitful: newsrooms can grant access to researchers in exchange for an outside analytical perspective (informed by candid conversations with anonymous staffers) on the operations of the organization.
When choosing an analytics service, look beyond the tools. We have a tendency to see numbers as authoritative and dispassionate reflections of the empirical world. For that reason, while it is intuitively obvious that analytics companies have their own business imperatives, it can be easy to forget this when looking at a dashboard packed with numerical data. This is not to say that companies like Chartbeat do not provide an accurate and useful service. Rather, it is to suggest that when newsroom managers are selecting from an array of analytics services, they should consider not only the tools available, but also which company’s values and strategic objectives best align with their own.
Identify the limitations of metrics. What, if anything, simply can’t be counted? As one follows debates on metrics and news over time, a pattern starts to become visible. One metric rises to prominence and widespread use only to face a backlash; critics argue that it incentivizes bad journalistic behavior and content of poor quality. Unless they are against the use of metrics altogether (which it seems that fewer and fewer are), these critics often advocate for the use of an alternative metric, which is said to reward good journalistic traits and more serious, civically minded content. The first metric is displaced (in reputation, if not in actual usage)xx by the second one—until it, too, is knocked off the pedestal. It is in this way that unique visitors replaced page views as the favored metric, only to be now challenged by engagement metrics.
To say that the cycle has become familiar is not to imply that no progress has been made, or that all metrics are equally useful—far from it. Efforts to improve audience analytics and to measure the impact of news are important and worthwhile. But newsrooms, analytics companies, funders, and media researchers should consider which of journalism’s most compelling and indispensable traits may stubbornly resist the process of commensuration that metrics impose on news. This leads to an even more difficult question: Does a highly commercial media system such as ours allow us to assign adequate value to that which is uncountable? This is the issue that the spread of news metrics will eventually force us to seriously contemplate.