What Metrics Should We Care About?

Phew – how long has it been since this blog was updated? Too long. I just got off a Knight-Mozilla OpenNews call (so fantastic, I almost don’t want to tell anyone else about them) and as always, I’ve come away with a wealth of great new reading material and research.

Recently, one of the problems that’s taken on a potentially ominous importance for me is the question of pageviews, and more broadly, meaningful metrics for measuring the value of a particular piece of journalism. The debate over pageviews isn’t new, and I suspect it has some of its roots in the (now largely bygone) haughtiness of journalists who felt that journalism should create the debate, rather than reflect it.

For journalists, the first King of Pageviews was arguably Nick Denton, whose Gawker blogs seemed to represent everything we disliked about where our industry might be heading and how little we might one day be paid. It’s funny that Gawker, which we once feared as the End of History, turned out to be a transitional phase. Then there was HuffPo, and now there’s BuzzFeed. And who knows what might come after that.

Certainly, BuzzFeed’s open pandering isn’t what we’d want every news outlet to look like. A few years ago, I remember chatting with a friend who is now a researcher in the UK. He suggested that news articles derived value from the fact that they could inform. Since then, other media thinkers (including Greg Linch, in a blog post) have suggested that “impact” is the metric we should strive to define. Taking Greg a bit further, Aron Pilhofer (in announcing a Knight-Mozilla fellowship project) said that truly impactful journalism should “change laws and lives.”

But none of this really got at the heart of what good news should do, and that’s probably because (as Greg himself says) the value of a particular piece of journalism is a deeply personal thing.

The online advertising climate of then (and now) has flattened news considerably. I’ve been in online journalism long enough to see these metrics evolve, as Google Analytics has given us ever more things we can measure and track. (Devices! Location! Keywords!) Sites like Chartbeat will tell me things like how far people have scrolled down my page. That’s great, but I’m increasingly unsure why I should care. Does even this incredibly nuanced data parsing give me a real insight into why my story matters? (The oldest, most important question of all)

The question of why my story matters is more relevant than ever before.  I tend to think – as do a lot of people who bet on content startups –  that the frantic scrambling for pageviews that characterized some early news startups will give way to a more mature news environment, one in which specialty sites will have even more opportunity to thrive. Sponsored content and subscription-driven sites, which we’ve started seeing much more of, are the early harbingers of this environment.

Many people who work for small but well-intentioned content sites hold onto the hope that we will at some point be able to define (in a more nuanced way than through pageviews, time on site, or even “engagement”) the value that our products provide to our users and to the wider debate.  When it comes to citizen journalism and civic media, the notion of “changing lives” becomes more important and yet also more fraught. For example, community radio networks like CGNet Swara and Gram Vaani have, by bringing rural voices into the mainstream, put pressure on bureaucracies to pave roads and solve crimes in rural areas.  The women’s newspaper Khabar Lahariya has done the same.  A lot of great, life-and-law-changing journalism happens on a community level, and the process by which citizens create their own media is a huge part of that.

To provide another example, a public interest site that provides a platform for an acid attack survivor to speak about her difficult recovery may have changed her life, as well as the lives of those who come into contact with her story.  But advertisers may not pay for that.  We say that good content rises to the top, but that simply isn’t always the case.  Citizen media faces some of the same challenges in distribution and finding an audience that indie films do. That doesn’t mean that these stories aren’t important, or that they shouldn’t be part of the broader discourse.

For community journalism, “impact” can be smaller in scale, but not in importance. Theoretically, most of us agree with that. But then, how to create an environment where communities that might not have the werewithal to support their own media can still tell their stories and thrive? The question of metrics isn’t just about telling meaningful stories, it’s about finding ways for these smaller sites to thrive and stand (financially, anyway) on their own.

Increasingly, we realize that a lot of pageview traffic isn’t necessarily driven by quality, but rather by legacy brands with strong financial backing and the ability to put money and man hours into creating and promoting their stories. (For a fascinating breakdown of how this process of promotion works, see Brian Abelson’s analysis of stories on the New York Times online. He looks at factors like social promotion, time on homepage, etc for more than 20,000 stories, and finds that accounting for these factors alone – never mind the story’s subject matter – can predict a great deal of pageview performance)  If that’s the case, then users’ pageviews are actually being very carefully harvested by certain clever brands. There’s a great deal of potentially valuable content that  readers may never see.

A lot of great stories are born on citizen platforms, and some of these (if they’re picked up by mainstream media) become major talking points, and change national debate. This fact alone should demonstrate that community media can have extraordinary value, especially in terms of the metrics that Pilhofer mentions above.

Personally, I think there is value in the act of storytelling, and in democratizing that act as much as possible. Civic media may not need to make massive profits, but it needs to stay alive. For years now, since the early difficulties of community radio, no one has really been able to define how to create monetizable value in a space where a lot of important and necessary content thrives. Finding different metrics is one answer to the question of how we can take better advantage of the inclusive potential of the Internet.

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