Online media is made of clicks.
Readers click from one article to the next. Advertising revenue is based on the number of unique visitors for each site. Editors always keep in mind their traffic targets to secure the survival of their publications. Writers and bloggers interpret clicks as a signal of popularity.
The economic realities underpinning the click-based web are well documented. Yet much work remains to be done on the cultural consequences of the growing importance of Internet metrics.
I conducted two years of ethnographic research (observing newsrooms and interviewing journalists, editors, and bloggers) exploring whether web analytics are changing newsroom cultures. The answer is a qualified yes, but in ways that differ from the ones we might expect.
Let me start with an example from the pre-Internet press. As the historian Robert Darnton recalls from his time as a staff writer at The New York Times in the 1960s, “We really wrote for one another. […] We knew that no one would jump on our stories as quickly as our colleagues.” Darnton reminds us that, in the printed world, the quality of one’s articles was mostly assessed by one’s peers and superiors. Journalists had somewhat abstract representations of their reading public. The “letters to the editor” were often left unread.
Then came the Internet. Journalists adjusted to this technological shock, inventing new practices and reconfiguring others (and in some cases changing nothing). Among the most profound changes differentiating print and online news was the arrival of web metrics. Journalists started to receive detailed feedback from their reading public. Editors began to track in real-time the number of clicks, uniques, likes, and tweets. Editorial departments increasingly relied on web analytics. One of the most popular analytics programs, Chartbeat, is now used by more than 3,000 sites in 35 countries.
This irruption of web metrics in editorial practice did not go unnoticed.
Some welcomed this evolution as the empowerment of the audience and argued that metrics constitute a healthy check on the worst habits of journalistic elite. Readers now have the opportunity to “vote with their feet,” or at least with their fingers. This feedback, many say, breaks the hierarchical flow of knowledge and authority from journalist to reader that characterized the printed press.
But most reactions have been critical. Writers are described as being on a hamster wheel of incessant updates geared towards traffic maximization. Scholars have analyzed the negative effects of this “culture of the click.” The obsession with clicks is said to be responsible for a degradation of online content: clickbait headlines, listicles of best burger places, and videos of adorable kittens that do little to turn readers into enlightened citizens.
Such a critical perspective is important and necessary. Yet my findings show that the effect of metrics is more complex than this.
In my research, I analyze online news in two countries, the United States and France, which have different journalistic traditions. I rely on ethnographic methods, a mix of observations and interviews, to systematically compare what editors and writers say about their work with what they actually do when they are in front of their computers.
After more than 400 hours of observation spent in the editorial departments of six online publications, as well as a hundred interviews with writers and editors, here is what I learned:
In other words, all media sites now rely on web analytics to make editorial decisions. But this does not mean that they all use and interpret metrics in similar ways. In fact, each editorial department makes sense of traffic numbers differently. There is not one but several “cultures of the click.”
Take the example of the gap between what journalists say about web metrics and what they do when they check their own traffic numbers. I find that journalists are particularly likely to have conflicted reactions to metrics when working for publications with high editorial ambitions facing financial instability. In this case, writers criticize the chase for clicks, but also understand online success as a signal of professional value. This is more striking in France, where market forces were previously less strong and journalism less fully professionalized than in the United States.
The main practical question becomes: what is the best way to manage web analytics for each publication? Should journalists be shielded from traffic pressures? Or should they be encouraged to maximize page views? In a period when many publications are creating traffic-based bonuses to increase the performance of their employees, my research suggests that there is no one-size-fits-all strategy for handling metrics.
Journalism has a double nature. It is both a public good and a commodity. With the multiplication of web metrics, good and bad, new strategies are needed to protect editorial independence from market forces. The need to find workable arrangements between editorial ambitions and economic realities is as old as journalism itself. It is also the only possible way to secure the future of the media, online.
Angèle Christin is a postdoctoral fellow at the New School for Social Research in New York. Her dissertation, entitled “Clicks or Pulitzers? Web Journalists and their Work in the United States and France,” explores questions about the rise of “big data” and individualized performance measurements in journalism.