Here's why S. Mitra Kalita is obsessed with metrics

S. Mitra Kalita at the ONA-Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. (Photo by Jennifer Mizgata/ONA)
S. Mitra Kalita at the ONA-Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media. (Photo by Jennifer Mizgata/ONA)

S. Mitra Kalita is obsessed with Chartbeat, but her training in metrics started way before it became her obsession.

“It’s glued onto my computer screen, always open on one of my screens,” said Kalita, outgoing executive editor at large at Quartz and incoming managing editor at the Los Angeles Times. “It’s as much as a check on the organization as an affirmation that I mattered -- is it egotistical to want to know that a headline we brainstormed among six people worked? That the photo we used from an election in Kenya worked on Facebook?”

But it's just one tool, she said.

"A lot of writers make the mistake of seeing metrics as a breakdown of only their performance, when it is actually so much more. Actually, we've always used data to inform news gathering. I'm thinking of the 'rule of three' -- when reporters would write features based on seeing or hearing about three examples of instances of a trend."

Kalita also pays attention to her inbox, reader feedback, Twitter and Facebook buzz and what's trending in both mainstream and niche audiences.

When Kalita spoke to the participants at the ONA-Poynter Leadership Academy for Women in Digital Media, she said that reporters and editors have to think about metrics and they have to think about their unique selling point -- “It’s not a monthly assessment, it’s not a daily assessment, as to ‘what is my worth in this organization?’ it’s like minute-to-minute,” she said.

When she worked at Newsday in the early 2000s she says she “grew up” as a reporter. Each day, she read more than a half dozen New York papers. “At Newsday, I was inundated with competition every morning. I woke up in fear of what stories I might have missed. I had to do this exercise everyday -- ‘what is my way into the story -- in a competitive landscape’?”

When she launched Mint, a business newspaper in India, she continued her competition consumption habit, regularly reading nine English-language newspapers a day. Working in India, she says, helped her see where American journalism is failing and gave her a fresh perspective when she returned to the U.S. When she got to Quartz years later, she said, she arrived "with the belief that everything was competition and that a journalist's idea is going to be her currency, is going to be her relevance." This focus on ideas is not just about the genesis of a story, but also about how to share it so it cuts through the clutter of Twitter. Which words will make the headline less wonky? What tweaks will help it rise to the top on Chartbeat?

In the world of Chartbeat, or whatever metrics tool an organization uses, stories compete with one another for the attention of the audience, and a smart leader tries to figure out why a story surpassed expectations or didn’t meet them. It’s similar to looking at the competitive landscape of printed editions that pile up on your doorstep, but with much more data.

In big newsrooms Kalita has worked in, she said, like The Washington Post, the landscape was competitive as well, but success was measured differently from how it is now.

“The goal was to be an ambitious reporter whose stories were big enough to warrant Page 1 treatment -- big thoughts, exclusivity, breaking news,” she said. “And now I think the onus is on owning the story and all of the ways in. At Quartz, that might mean with a story like Charlie Hebdo, we do 12-15 stories in different ways: data visualization, photo essay, many forms of commentary, reported takes on freedom of expression, religious fundamentalism, and maybe many, many stories, many ways in.”

News organizations must carve out a space and an audience for themselves and be competitive about owning that space, Kalita says. One of the things that drew her to the L.A. Times, she says, is that the paper was still getting readers and might even be able to tap into a bit of startup culture because with its new publisher it’s in a sort of “reset mode” right now.

People are still turning to the L.A. Times to be an authority on national news, Kalita says, and the organization is doing meaningful work. The goal of feeding the mission of the organization through quality journalism is what drives her to obsess over metrics. When a story isn’t getting the traffic she thinks it deserves, she tries to make sure it gets that attention. At Quartz, she’d consider whether switching the headline or lead photo would help, and might initiate those changes based on intuition, in collaboration with colleagues across the organization.

“The people who use Chartbeat well look way beyond the visitors in that moment, looking at time spent, the source of entry, what stories surprise you that broke into the top, what stories did we think would do well that didn’t,” she said.

Kalita is constantly thinking about metrics, but she’s also constantly thinking about dozens of other things, she said. Her new job, her family, her community, social media, are all on her mind. She describes her mind as chaotic, and in that chaos, she says, having metrics to put some order to the work is comforting. “Chartbeat is almost the perfect Koosh ball of decompressing,” she says.

As she moves from Quartz to the LA Times, she’ll have a lot to figure out, but one thing she’s sure of is that on one of her screens, and one will always be on Chartbeat.

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