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.

Liz McMillen   The year of deep insights

Felix Salmon   Headlines matter

Mario Garcia   Virtual reality on mobile leaps forward

Ken Schwencke   Disaggregation and collection

Geetika Rudra   Journalism is community

Javaun Moradi   What can we own?

Ståle Grut   The battle for high-quality VR

Michael Oreskes   Reversing the erosion of democracy

Amy O'Leary   Not just covering communities, reaching them

Vivian Schiller   Tested like never before

Molly de Aguiar   Philanthropists galvanize around news

Jeremy Barr   A terrible year for Tiers B through D

Andrea Silenzi   Podcasts dive into breaking news analysis

Margarita Noriega   From pinning tweets to tweeting pins

Francesco Marconi   The year of augmented writing

Amy Webb   Journalism as a service

Ernst-Jan Pfauth   Earn trust by working for (and with) readers

Dhiya Kuriakose   The year of digital detoxing

Ray Soto   VR moves from experiments to immersion

Rachel Sklar   Women are going to get loud

Tressie McMillan Cottom   A path through the media’s coming legitimacy crisis

Mira Lowe   News literacy, bias, and “Hamilton”

Olivia Ma   The year collaboration beats competition

An Xiao Mina   2017 is for the attention innovators

Laura Walker   Authentic voices, not fake news

Helen Havlak   Chasing mobile search results

Tracie Powell   Building reader relationships

Annemarie Dooling   UGC as a path out of the bubble

Jonathan Hunt   Measurement companies get with the times

Rebekah Monson   Journalism is community-as-a-service

Alexis Lloyd   Public trust for private realities

Dannagal G. Young   The return of the gatekeepers

Steve Henn   The next revolution is voice

Taylor Lorenz   “Selfie journalism” becomes a thing

David Chavern   Fake news gets solved

Robert Hernandez   History will exclude you, again

Nushin Rashidian   A rise in high-price, high-value subscriptions

Megan H. Chan   Cultural reporting goes mainstream

Anita Zielina   The sales funnel reaches (and changes) the newsroom

Renée Kaplan   Pure reach has reached its limit

Coleen O'Lear   Back to basics

Umbreen Bhatti   A sense of journalists’ humanity

Mike Ragsdale   A smarter information diet

Mathew Ingram   The Faustian Facebook dance continues

Claire Wardle   Verification takes center stage

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon   Truthiness in private spaces

Alice Antheaume   A new test for French media

Emily Goligoski   Incorporating audience feedback at scale

Ashley C. Woods   Local journalism will fight a new fight

Matt Karolian   AI improves publishing

Amie Ferris-Rotman   Вслед за Россией

Reyhan Harmanci   Bear witness — but then what?

Melody Kramer   Radically rethinking design

Corey Ford   The year of the rebelpreneur

M. Scott Havens   Quality advertising to pair with quality content

Mark Armstrong   Time to pay up

Cory Haik   Navigating power in Trump’s America

Bill Adair   The year of the fact-checking bot

Almar Latour   Thanks, #fakenews

Pablo Boczkowski   Fake news and the future of journalism

Mary Meehan   Feeling blue in a red state

Trushar Barot   API or die

Scott Dodd   Nonprofits team up for impact

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   News after advertising may look like news before advertising

Sara M. Watson   There is no neutral interface

Christopher Meighan   Unlocking a deeper mobile experience

Tanya Cordrey   The resurgence of reach

Asma Khalid   The year of the newsy podcast

Michael Kuntz   Trust is the new click

Jim Friedlich   A banner year for venture philanthropy

Sarah Marshall   Focusing on the why of the click

P. Kim Bui   The year journalism teaches again

Elizabeth Jensen   Trust depends on the details

Sue Schardt   Objectivity, fairness, balance, and love

Alberto Cairo   Communicating uncertainty to our readers

Gabriel Snyder   The aberration of 20th-century journalism

Nicholas Quah   Podcasting’s coming class war

Emi Kolawole   From empathy to community

Mary Walter-Brown   Getting comfortable asking for money

Tim Herrera   The safe space of service journalism

Ole Reißmann   Un-faking the news

Lam Thuy Vo   The primary source in the age of mechanical multiplication

Guy Raz   Inspiration and hope will matter more than ever

Liz Danzico   The triumph of the small

Moreno Cruz Osório   The year of transparency in Brazilian journalism

Doris Truong   Connecting with diverse perspectives

Maria Bustillos   “It’s true — I saw it on Facebook”

Adam Thomas   The coming collaboration across Europe

Ariane Bernard   Better data about your users

S.P. Sullivan   Baking transparency into our routines

Carrie Brown-Smith   We won’t do enough

Jon Slade   Trusted news, at a premium

Tim Griggs   The year we stop taking sides

Jonathan Stray   A boom in responsible conservative media

Millie Tran   International expansion without colonial overtones

Andrew Haeg   The year of listening

Richard J. Tofel   The country doesn’t trust us — but they do believe us

Andy Rossback   The year of the user

Erin Pettigrew   A year of reflection in tech

Caitlin Thompson   High touch, high value

Erin Millar   The bottom falls out of Canadian media

Peter Sterne   A dangerous anti-press mix

Carla Zanoni   Prioritizing emotional health

Sam Ford   The year we talk about our awful metrics

Sydette Harry   Facing journalism’s history

Priya Ganapati   Mobile websites are ready for reinvention

Burt Herman   Local news gets interesting

Lee Glendinning   A call for great editing

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting stratifies into hard layers

Juliette De Maeyer and Dominique Trudel   A rebirth of populist journalism

Aja Bogdanoff   Comments start pulling their weight

Laura E. Davis   Show your work

Hillary Frey   Forests need to burn to regrow

Kawandeep Virdee   Moving deeper than the machine of clicks

Rachel Schallom   Stop flying over the flyover states

Bill Keller   A healthy skepticism about data

Dan Colarusso   Let’s make live video we can love

Andrew Losowsky   Building our own communities

Matt Waite   The people running the media are the problem

Swati Sharma   Failing diversity is failing journalism

Mandy Velez   The audience is the source and the story

Kathleen Kingsbury   Print as a premium offering

Julia Beizer   Building a coherent core identity

Sarah Wolozin   Virtual reality on the open web

Dan Gillmor   Fix the demand side of news too

Errin Haines Whack   Chaos or community?

Samantha Barry   Messaging apps go mainstream

Ryan McCarthy   Platforms grow up or grow more toxic

David Skok   What lies beyond paywalls

Rubina Madan Fillion   Snapchat grows up

Andrew Ramsammy   Rise of the rebel journalist

Libby Bawcombe   Kids board the podcast train

Cindy Royal   Preparing the digital educator-scholar hybrid

Joanne Lipman   The year of the drone, really

Zizi Papacharissi   Distracted journalism looks in the mirror

Katie Zhu   The year of minority media

Juan Luis Sánchez   Your predictions are our present

David Weigel   A test for online speech

Keren Goldshlager   Defining a focus, and then saying no

Nathalie Malinarich   Making it easy