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Sept. 14, 2010, 2:30 p.m.

“Squeezing humanity through a straw”: The long-term consequences of using metrics in journalism

[Here’s C.W. Anderson responding to the same subject Nikki Usher wrote about: the impact of audience data on how news organizations operate. Sort of a debate. —Josh]

One way to think about the growing use of online metrics in newsrooms (a practice that has been going on forever but seems to have finally been noticed of late) is to think about it as part of a general democratization of journalism. And it’s tempting to portray the two sides to the debate as (in this corner!) the young, tech-savvy newsroom manager who is finally listening to the audience, and (in this corner!) the fading fuddy-duddy-cum-elitist more concerned with outdated professional snobbery than with what the audience wants.

Fortunately, actual working journalists rarely truck in such simplistic stereotypes, arguing rightly that there isn’t a binary divide between smart measurement and good journalism. As Washington Post executive producer and head of digital news products Katharine Zaleski told Howard Kurtz:

There’s news we know people should read — because it’s important and originates with our reporting — and that’s our primary function…But we also have to be very aware of what people are searching for out there and want more information on…If we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our jobs.

Or as Lab contributor Nikki Usher put it: “[I]f used properly, SEO and audience tracking make newsrooms more accountable to their readers without dictating bad content decisions — and it can help newsrooms focus on reader needs.”

At the level of short-term newsroom practices, I agree with Usher, Zaleski, and every other journalist and pundit who takes a nuanced view of the role played by newsroom metrics. So if you’re worried about whether audience tracking is going to eliminate quality journalism, the quick answer is no.

My own concerns with the increased organizational reliance on metrics are more long-term and abstract. They have as much to do with society than with journalism per se. They center around:

— the manner in which metrics can serve as a form of newsroom discipline;
— the squishiness of algorithmically-afforded audience understanding;
— the often-oversimpistic ways we talk about the audience (under the assumption that we’re all talking about the same thing); and, finally
— the way that online quantification simplifies our understanding of what it means to “want” information.

Big topics, I admit. Each of these points could be the subject of its own blog post, so for the sake of space, I want to frame what I’m talking about by dissecting this seemingly innocuous phrase:

“We know what the audience wants.”

Let’s look at the words in this sentence, one at a time. Each of them bundles in a lot of assumptions, which, when examined together, might shed light on the uses and the potential long-term pitfalls of newsroom quantification.

“We”: Who is the “we” that knows what kind of journalism the audience wants? Often, I’d argue, it’s executives in our increasingly digitized newsrooms that now have a powerful tool through which to manage and discipline their employees. In my own research, I’ve discovered that the biggest factor in determining the relationship between metrics and editorial practices are the ways that these metrics are utilized by management, rather the presence or absence of a particular technology. Philosopher Michel Foucault called these types of practices disciplinary practices, and argued that they involved three primary types of control: “hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and the examination.” Perhaps this is fine when we’re trying to salvage a functional news industry out of the wreckage of a failed business model, but we should at least keep these complications in mind — metrics are a newsroom enforcement mechanism.

“Know”: Actually, we don’t know a whole lot about our audiences — but there’s a lot of power in claiming that we know everything. In other words, the more data we have, paradoxically, the less we know, and the more it behooves us to claim exactitude. While smart thinkers have been writing about the problem of poor web metrics for years, a major new report by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia has thrown the issue into stark relief. As report researcher (and, full disclosure, friend and colleague) Lucas Graves writes:

The Web has been hailed as the most measurable medium ever, and it lives up to the hype. The mistake was to assume that everyone measuring everything would produce clarity. On the contrary, clear media standards emerge where there’s a shortage of real data about audiences…The only way to imbue an audience number with anything like the authority of the old TV ratings is with a new monopoly — if either Nielsen or comScore folds or, more likely, they merge. That kind of authority won’t mean greater accuracy, just less argument.

There’s a circular relationship here between increased measurement, less meaningful knowledge, and greater institutional power. When we forget this, we can be uncritical about what it is metrics actually allow us to do.

“The Audience”: What’s this thing we insist we know so much about? We call it the audience, but sometimes we slip and call it “the public.” But audiences are not publics, and it’s dangerous to claim that they are. Groups of people connected by the media can be connected in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons, and can be called all sorts of things; they can be citizens united by common purpose, or by public deliberation. They can be activists, united around a shared political goal. They can be a community, or a society. Or they can be called an audience.

I don’t have anything at all against the notion of the audience, per se — but I am concerned that journalists are increasingly equating the measurable audience (a statistical aggregate connected by technology, though consumption) with something bigger and more important. The fact that we know the desires and preferences and this formerly shadowy and hidden group of strangers is seductive, and it’s often wrong.

“Wants”: Finally, what does it mean to want a particular piece of information? As Alexis Madrigal notes in this short but smart post at The Atlantic, informational want is a complicated emotion that runs the risk of being oversimplified by algorithms. Paradoxically, web metrics have become increasingly complex at the same time they’ve posited increasingly simplistic outcomes. They’re complex in terms of their techniques, but simple in terms of what it is we claim they provide us and in the ultimate goal that they serve. Time on site, engagement, pageviews, uniques, eye movement, mouse movement — all of these ultimately boil down to tracking a base-level consumer desire via the click of a mouse or the movement of the eye.

But what do we “want”? We want to love a story, to be angry about it it, to fight with it, to be politically engaged by it, to feel politically apathetic towards it, to let it join us together in a common cause, for it make us laugh, and for it to make us cry. All of these wants are hard to capture quantitatively, and in our rush to capture audience data, we run the risk of oversimplifying the notion of informational desire. We run the risk of squeezing humanity through a digital straw.

So — will an increasing use of online metrics give us bad journalism? No.

Will they play a role in facilitating, over the long term, the emergence of a communicative world that is a little flatter, a little more squeezed, a little more quantitative, more disciplinary, more predictive, and less interesting? They might. But take hope: Such an outcome is likely only if we lose sight of what it is that metrics can do, and what it is about human beings that they leave out.

POSTED     Sept. 14, 2010, 2:30 p.m.
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