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The episode in which I cause the sky to fall on journalism as we know it

Submitted by yelvington on April 18, 2014 - 3:05pm

I was part of a panel discussion of metrics and analytics in the newsroom a couple of weeks ago at the Journalism Interactive conference at the University of Maryland. I approached the subject with some trepidation. Some journalists are resistant to the very idea of measurement, often downright innumerate, and sometimes hostile to any idea that doesn't lead us all back into the honey and clover of the 1980s, before the Internet came along and turned it all into snakes and bees.

But I was heartened to find that the room was full of people who were clearly very interested in the subject and asking very good questions.

The panel was covered by the American Journalism Review, which produced a main story about the panel discussion and a short sidebar noting that we are awarding small spiffs to reporters whose bylined stories contribute to traffic growth goals.

Without getting bogged down in detail: Each reporter has a stretch goal equivalent to a 5% monthly traffic increase. The goals are individual -- each beat is different. The program, which also is in place at the Amarillo Globe-News and probably some other Morris Publishing Group sites, is intended to reward staffers for paying attention to the metrics and learning how to increase reader engagement. Storytelling techniques, SEO, social media engagement and choice of subject all play into generating results, but it should be noted that each reporter still has an assigned beat. This isn't a case where people are being encouraged to write about Honey Boo-Boo and Paula Deen -- except, of course when they are here and do something newsworthy. And "here" being Savannah, there are ample opportunities.

As I told the group, the program has been helpful in leading our staff to execute better on our goals of continuous news coverage and social engagement.

But it didn't take long until the knees jerked:

and ...

and ...

... and so on, for a total of nine tweets over two days.

Let me be clear: This is bullshit.

None of it comes as a surprise; in my 20+ years of trying to get print-oriented people to play the digital game, I've been accused of being unethical for giving away content for free, charging for content, holding stories to coordinate with print, running stories online before print subscribers could read them first, allowing people to comment under pseudonyms, not allowing people to comment under pseudonyms, "censoring" racists and trolls, running news photos that the "family newspaper" found objectionable, running photos without full captions and IDs of everyone pictured ... it goes on and on. We do face legitimate ethical challenges in this business, but all too often I see journalists using a claim of "ethics" as a lazy defense against change that they see as somehow threatening.

But here is what I actually told the audience in College Park:

  • Metrics matter because this is a business, and you can't manage what you can't measure.
  • The very act of counting creates a scoreboard. All scoreboards are incentive systems. It is in our nature to be competitive.
  • We have to be very careful about how we talk about our numbers. Context matters. Numbers without context can be dangerous. A scoreboard that leads people to behave in ways counter to your strategic objectives will damage you.

Journalism requires an audience. So does the business that supports journalism. We can not put journalism on a sustainable path by ignoring the signals that tell us how well we are doing with our audiences. Pageviews are an imperfect measure, but they are an easily understandable metric and one that from a business perspective maps directly to the generation of advertising inventory.

We have to grow our online audience engagement. It is not optional. It is not unethical to measure our success, and it is not unethical to reward people who learn to better contribute to that success. I really don't think there is much danger of savannahnow.com turning into Gawker or Jan Skutch turning into Nick Denton. Not that there's anything wrong with any of that -- we're just playing different roles. We all know who we are and what we're trying to do, and a night on the town as a reward for hitting a growth goal isn't going to change that.