Wick Communications

The line between data and dumb

In Ethics on 28 Mar 2014 at 7:53 am
The logo from a conference at Yale in 2012.

The logo from a conference at Yale in 2012.

There is an interesting story on Digiday about the growing interest in metrics among some of the world’s top digital publishers. It’s not a particularly new topic, but it’s clear that some of our competitors for eyeballs are growing much, much more sophisticated about how they track reader interest.

I think this is potentially a good thing but probably a bad thing. Let me explain.

Digiday’s Lucia Moses outlines how several relative whippersnappers of the news/information world are using the data of “what works” to drive their coverage. In other words, editors and in some instances reporters are actively tracking shares and pageviews and clicks and other indicators of how many people are reading their stories. Most are careful to say they don’t allow the numbers to dictate what they do. However, if that were true, you have to ask yourself why so many of them are going so far as to build proprietary platforms to track those numbers.

From Moses’ story:

The Huffington Post uses tools built in-house so its editors can access metrics at all times both to plan future stories and to assess current traffic. …

“There’s real value in knowing whether or not a story resonated,” said Jimmy Soni, managing editor of the HuffPost Media Group. ”That information doesn’t necessarily drive our editorial coverage, but over time, the accumulation of little bits and pieces of feedback from your audience can help you understand how to best serve them and on which platform.”

Soni’s argument makes a ton of sense and he does a great job of articulating what his outfit is up to. I don’t argue the value of such tools in judicious hands. The devil may be in the way he uses the word “necessarily.” It doesn’t necessarily drive editorial decisions. But over time, the media company hopes to hone its offerings to better meet readers’ apparent desires.

Which is what we should all be doing … to a point. There is a reason no one will ever call BuzzFeed “the fourth estate.” As journalists, I hope, we aspire to a higher calling than harvesting clicks. For instance, I know full well that car wrecks and arrests are sure-fire winners on our website. I could do a better job of capitalizing on that, if I wanted to spend our resources doing so. But I don’t think that consumption pattern reflects our community. I think we have a responsibility to not only give the people what they want, but also what they need to be informed citizens and to provide a fair and accurate portrayal of the readership. That means coverage that plays school news as prominently as car crashes.

Which is only one reason I’ll never be the editor of Vice, I guess.

Look, I don’t want to overstate this. I do think the wealth of information available from Web stats is useful. We should be “listening” (eavesdropping?) on our online readers in order to better serve them. I just want us all to be aware that a reliance on numbers can lead to the lowest common denominator.



  1. It seems to me that (at least for print journalism) the dependence on metrics is more pronounced when the audience has more than one way to get its digital news. And this is really for Managers (meh). This would correlate with a necessity for gathering the information about devices, age groups, and (hopefully) the buckets of your audience interests. Big question is how does that matter to the Journalist? It shouldn’t!

    But there are loads of other data types out there – that aren’t audience metrics – that journalists should use (eg. climate data, etc.)


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