March 25, 2014

Audience-based accountability can be scary for reporters, especially if it’s based on imperfect page-view metrics that don’t account for the fact that what’s journalistically important isn’t always what’s popular.

So how do we acknowledge the fact that our journalism exists to be read even as we remain suspicious of purely readership-based assessments of our work? Here’s how Rick Edmonds put it in his recap of the Newspaper Association of America’s mediaXchange conference in Denver last week:

I don’t think anyone is saying that data science will fully replace “gut” calls on what to cover and play prominently. But as leading practice on digital-only sites shows, hard real-time evidence of how stories perform is both a valuable supplement to old-timey news judgment and a check on bad choices.

What kinds of bad choices? One could be the choice to cover a particular story too extensively. Another could be the choice to write a boring Facebook post and headline that didn’t do the story justice. But what if the emphasis on analytics goes too far? What if reporters start to view poor Chartbeat performance as a sign that the choice to report the story in the first place was a bad one? Wouldn’t you be more likely to see it that way if your paycheck depends on clicks?

That’s the case for non-staff contributors at Forbes who are compensated based on unique visitors, Digiday reported Monday. Meanwhile, David Carr’s column has a rundown of news organizations experimenting with paying and/or evaluating reporters based on clicks and other metrics. Among them: The Oregonian, whose new policy was first reported by the Willamette Week based on internal documents it obtained:

Beginning immediately, according to the documents, the company’s leadership will require reporters to post new articles three times a day, and to post the first comment under any significant article. It’s part of a companywide initiative to increase page views by 27.7 percent in the coming year. Beyond that, reporters are expected to increase their average number of daily posts by 25 percent by the middle of the year and an additional 15 percent in the second half of the year.

In Willamette Week’s story, Newsonomics‘ Ken Doctor predicted “you’ll see fewer of those stories that require talking to 5 or 10 people, as opposed to talking to 1 or 2 people.” The Oregonian’s new standards don’t mean content will necessarily be worse — and it’ll be a good thing if pressure to post more stories leads to more iterative online storytelling. But what if the standards are unfair or the emphasis on page views sacrifices quality? Upworthy and BuzzFeed, perhaps ironically, offer some lessons.

‘Potential audiences’ and ‘craven techniques’

BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith has said he judges stories in terms of how well they live up to their individual potential, and doesn’t hold videos of animals to the same standard as reports from war-torn countries. From Nieman Reports:

“Each story has a potential audience and if it’s a story about Ukraine or a story about lobbying in D.C., there are maybe tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people who might, in an ideal world, share and read that story. If it’s a feature about rebuilding a house in Detroit, there may be millions. If it’s a list of cute animals or something that’s about a universal human experience, there may be tens of millions. We think: What’s the possible audience for this piece and let’s try to hit that whole audience.”

One hopes the county government reporter at The Oregonian will be held to a different standard than the entertainment reporter, and that there will be some flexibility when it comes to the 25 percent increase in daily posts expected of them.

Meanwhile, say what you will about Upworthy, but the site doesn’t brazenly emphasize quantity like many of its viral peers. And neither does it chase clicks indiscriminately, as BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post and even the most reputable of newspaper sites often do. As Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser put it in a conversation with Carr at South by Southwest this month, every piece of content the site shares must advance its social mission. Upworthy’s About Page promises no empty calories.

Upworthy takes a lot of heat for its salesmanship tactics, including click testing for various headline ideas. But it doesn’t see teasing headlines as compromising the larger mission; rather, they’re in service of the mission because, after all, stories can’t make a difference if nobody reads them. Basically, Upworthy is OK with the ends justifying the means — but the ends aren’t up for debate. Writes Nitsuh Abebe in a New York magazine profile: “They’ve harnessed craven techniques in the service of unobjectionable goals.”

Allowing clicks to dictate which headline to go with seems like a less insidious use of metrics than allowing them to dictate whether a school board meeting is worth covering in the first place, or whether it’s OK to write about the Kardashians because the clicks will subsidize other content. Yes, Upworthy is an aggregator, and it doesn’t employ magicians who could make just any local event inspiring to millions. But the editors do give what they consider to be good content every chance to succeed, and there are certain compromises they don’t make. Those are good things to keep in mind as even the most traditional newsrooms start listening to Chartbeat’s siren song.

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
Sam Kirkland

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