The year we talk about our awful metrics

“The industry is running on metrics that serve no one well, but we continue chugging along because we all equally accept the lie.”

Given the twists and turns journalism faced in 2016, it would be easy enough to conjure up some pessimistic — or even dystopian — views of what lies ahead for the industry. But I like to think of myself as a realistic and pragmatic optimist, if nothing else because the best way to ensure things won’t improve is to consider it futile to try.

sam-fordSo, my primary hopeful prediction for our industry for 2017:

Getting serious about better forms of measurement. The industry is running on metrics that serve no one well, but we continue chugging along because we all equally accept the lie. In the current model, publishers measure what’s easiest to capture, no matter how reflective of real engagement; production budgets go toward things that generate the best numbers for this so-called “reach” or “impressions” or “uniques,” even when they do little to create revenue or build a brand (especially when on platforms the publisher doesn’t own and can barely monetize); and advertisers accept inflated numbers industry-wide and continue putting the most funding behind stories which may have the least ongoing resonance.

Thus, audiences too frequently get served with unmemorable stories thin on nuance, heavy on provoking knee-jerk response, and with misleading packaging that causes them to bail two sentences, or fifteen seconds, into the piece (assuming the company doesn’t actively measure and talk about bounce rates, completion rates, and/or time spent on site).

Perhaps the frustrations of 2016 — and the untenable-ness of the “reach bubble” — will lead to 2017 as the year industry stakeholders put significant institutional, cross-industry resources behind better advertising products (or sponsorships/foundation funding/etc.) which are predicated on meaningful news brands that resonate with their publics. And, hopefully, that will foster better journalism that people not only are intentionally reading, watching, or listening to but even remembering a story (and the publisher it came from) the next day. If we try to, we’ll find a way to get proactive about this conversation before that reach bubble bursts (or the business model has reached rummage sale levels of commodification).

News organizations design everything around the metrics they’ve accepted. If we don’t address this, much of the rest seems futile. However, I’m greedy. So, on the caveat that next year is the year of meaningful discussion about measurement, here are three more hopeful predictions I hope we work toward making come true in 2017:

  • Considering ways to extend the shelf life of stories. Hopefully, in 2017, journalism will be able to follow the pathway of serialized television in thinking about the features, investigations, and other materials we create as valuable ongoing intellectual property. We live in a world where many of our stories are evergreen, but our machines too often run as if yesterday’s stories disappeared into the ether, or are lining today’s birdcage. We don’t prioritize finding ongoing ways to promote stories that remain highly relevant and into which we’ve invested significant resources in developing. Only if we prioritize longevity as a sought-after attribute for a story can we justify putting institutional resources behind recirculating those stories as they become timely again, seeking secondary uses (or platforms) for those materials, and ensuring the stories makes it into the hands of those dedicated to thinking about the issues it covers.
  • Building relationships with the publics who care about our stories. If we’re measuring engagement and impact, and thus prioritizing stories that hit those marks, then it’s important to make sure those stories are seen by the communities who care about the issues we cover most. The days of telling a story and just suspecting all those who care about that issue will somehow find it are behind us, in today’s era of massive information overload. In 2016, at Fusion we built a (unfortunately short-lived) “community liaison” function that focused on just this — identifying those who cared deeply about the issues tackled in some of our stories with potentially long shelf lives; reaching out to ensure those parties saw the story; and acting as a point of contact with them to get feedback and leads and better listen to community concerns.
  • Tackling the industry’s ongoing diversity issues. It’s hard to report on — and develop rapport with — the communities you serve if your organization doesn’t reflect them. 2016 revealed all sorts of ways journalism companies were viewed as out of touch with their audiences. A news org with a diverse range of ages, races, gender identities, and economic backgrounds is more likely to reflect the various concerns and interests of their audiences — and to unearth stories that would otherwise be missed. National news organizations must think more deeply about having contributors and staff members located in a geographically diverse range of places, and beyond the few cities where journalism talent is centralizing in a digital age. We should focus on Dallas, Atlanta, and Boston as well as NYC, LA, and DC, and in the urban, suburban, and rural places beyond them. We should resist pitting cultural elites against rural flyover dwellers, or red states versus blue. It’s about journalists who aren’t constrained by such stereotyping geographical metaphors.

Sam Ford is a research affiliate with MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing and former vice president of innovation and engagement at Fusion Media Group.

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