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Oct. 31, 2013, 1:16 p.m.

What’s New in Digital Scholarship: Chasing pageviews, news on Facebook, and the search for the golden metric

Redefining the relationship between journalist and citizen, the quandary of comfort news, and Norwegian thrash death metal: all that and more in this month’s roundup of the academic literature.

Editor’s note: There’s a lot of interesting academic research going on in digital media — but who has time to sift through all those journals and papers?

Our friends at Journalist’s Resource, that’s who. JR is a project of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, and they spend their time examining the new academic literature in media, social science, and other fields, summarizing the high points and giving you a point of entry. Roughly once a month, JR managing editor John Wihbey will sum up for us what’s new and fresh.

Should news organizations invest in better Facebook branding or more accountability stories on local government? Should they slavishly follow web analytics and serve up “comfort” content that makes the audience happy — or should the content challenge them? At a basic level, it’s the old binary, God and Mammon, reborn digital. One broad theme in recent scholarship is how the digital world continues to make the notion of “value” — money, prosocial good, or something else — problematic and complex. What role should money play in media decision-making? Beyond CPMs, what’s a site visit, a new follower, or a fan worth these days? How do we support non-commercial efforts in the public interest? How do we create sustainable media that also boost civic life and engagement? The following studies have insights or data that speak to these issues.

“When Newsworthy Is Not Noteworthy: Examining the value of news from the audience’s perspective”: From the University of Texas at Austin, published in Journalism Studies. By Angela M. Lee and Hsiang Iris Chyi.

The authors take a hard look at the disjunction between what editors think is important and what news consumers actually think of the content offered. Lee and Chyi analyze results of a 2010 online survey (767 respondents) that asked about consumption habits and the degree to which audience members found news to be relevant or interesting. “On average, respondents indicated 36 percent of news content provided by the mainstream news organizations is of noteworthiness,” they find. “In other words, an average internet user found nearly two-thirds of the news irrelevant and uninteresting.” Local news got the best ratings; about 50 percent was identified as noteworthy.

Predictably, different kinds of news — local versus international, business versus entertainment, etc. — have better traction with different demographics, in terms of race, gender and age. However, the takeaway findings suggest news organizations are continuing to leave potential revenue on the table: “[W]hile demographic factors do predict various aspects of news consumption, perceived noteworthiness is actually a more important factor that influences news consumption and creates the kind of monetizing value that will set news organizations apart from other media providers in the age of information surplus. After all, with about two-thirds of the news deemed unnoteworthy by the respondents, it is hardly a surprise that most news users are disinterested in most, if not all, paywall models…The problem may not be that news users are unwilling to pay, but that most news content is of limited appeal to most users.

“The Role of News on Facebook”: From the Pew Research Journalism Project. By Amy Mitchell, Jocelyn Kiley, Jeffrey Gottfried, and Emily Guskin.

As Justin Ellis has written here at the Lab, this report suggests that news is not a big reason why people go to Facebook. A nationally representative online survey of more than 5,000 U.S. adults (margin of error plus or minus 1.7 percentage points) shows the following about news content and Facebook: 34 percent of the American public has a news organization or individual in his/her feed; 78 percent say they get news on the social media platform; 47 percent of light news consumers say it is an important place where they get news; but only 4 percent overall say it’s the most important place they get news.

Demographics, as would be expected, are all-important: “Young people (18- to 29-year-olds) account for about a third, 34 percent, of Facebook news consumers. That far outpaces the 20% that they account for among Facebook users who do not get news on the site.” Among people who regularly consume news there, entertainment is the most popular content category (73 percent ) while just 44 percent see content related to local government. Overall, the report suggests that news is frequently consumed in “incidental” or ambient fashion on the platform. From a news branding perspective, there is unsettling news: “Just over a third, 37 percent, say a friend’s recommendation is a major reason they click on news links, and only 20 percent say a major reason is because the post is from a news organization they prefer.”

“Searchlights and Sunglasses: Field Notes from the Digital Age of Journalism”: Digital book from the Knight Foundation. By Eric Newton.

Newton, senior advisor to the president at Knight (full disclosure: a funder of both Nieman Lab and Journalist’s Resource), is a deep thinker on all things digital media (see his recent call-to-arms on journalism education at the Lab), and this new ebook is in many ways a summation of everything he’s learned and the many projects the foundation has been involved with through the years. It provides a tour both of journalism’s past and potential future (or “a history of the future of news,” in his phrase) emphasizing not only the new tools and practices reporters need to remain relevant and innovate but also issues relating to policy, deeper community and civic engagement dynamics, and “simmering opportunities.” The HTML5 design makes for a fun, interactive read, and learning materials for classroom use and discussion are embedded in the structure. Topics such as anonymous online comment threads (bad) and open newsrooms and newspapers (good) are covered. The narrative draws on vast data, but it’s infused with whimsy and a nod to sci-fi inspiration. One highlight is a discussion of the relationship between “comfort news” (soft news, entertainment, etc.) and civics: “Comfort news is the reason why we know so much about celebrities and so little about what our government does or how to solve our most pressing problems,” Newton writes. “This trend is the underbelly of the information revolution.”

The ebook is ultimately a kind of open letter to all who care about the Internet and our ability to function as a society: “Like democracy itself, professional journalism is a somewhat messy experiment,” he writes. “We don’t know exactly where it’s headed, but some things seem clear. The digital age is not some kind of fad. It is nothing less than the fourth great age of human literacy — after the rise of the image, language, and mass media. Visual literacy made tribes possible. Language brought us cities. Mass media inspired modern nations. Will digital literacy unite the world? Perhaps. The unprecedented power of data will not automatically end famine, disease or war. Digital tools are just that, tools. They amplify human hopes and fears. They allow the entire networked world to react, or overreact, instantly. Today’s tools provide a powerful test for us all.”

“The online audience as gatekeeper: The influence of reader metrics on news editorial selection”: From the University of Texas at Austin, published in Journalism. By Hong Tien Vu.

Sure, we should monitor analytics. But should a news outlet’s content be solely driven by traffic numbers — link bait and viral plays, all over, all the time? This study surveys 318 newspaper editors — gatekeepers — to see how much analytics and audience numbers matter in terms of decision-making. The medium circulation figure among the outlets surveyed was about 53,000. Sixty percent of editors managed online and print content. “Most editors said that they monitor web metrics to only scrutinize audience behavior,” Vu writes. “However, nearly one-third also explicitly said that online metrics helps them plan future content production and/or placement. This, perhaps, is because the journalistic occupational pride of sustaining autonomy against any kind of non-professional influences made it harder for editors to admit that their editorial decision-making is affected by audience metrics.” Further, Vu finds some conflicting data about how editors think about economics: “Journalists are trying to cope with rampant financial problems that have hit the industry, but are still unsure whether allowing deeper audience interference on their professional turf is the solution.”

“Data not seen: The uses and shortcomings of social media metrics”: From Microsoft Research/MIT, published in First Monday. By Nancy K. Baym.

So it’s not just pageviews anymore, and we still haven’t found what we’re looking for. But what might the golden metric look like? Many things, Baym suggests. A thoughtful, reflective paper that puts analytics and social data in a wider theoretical context, it also underscores a basic message that is increasingly resonant with online strategists of all kinds: “We are more than our Klout scores,” she writes. “Now, more than ever, we need qualitative sensibilities and methods to help us see what numbers cannot.” The study, a broad discussion wrapped around some qualitative data from interviews with eclectic persons involved in the music business — from members of The Cure and Chester Finch to “Norwegian thrash death metal bands” and a Puerto Rican band manager — is relevant to any group whose broader social mission is as important as their economic bottom line.

“Quantitative analyses of audience,” Baym notes, “including those based on sentiment mining (with all the ambiguities lost in those techniques), necessarily omit much of what provides real value to both audiences and artists.” The paper examines how “visible” certain social media metrics — thousands of Twitter followers, winners in the “Like economy” — confer status and generate buzz, but in point of fact these numbers are a function of sometimes skewed algorithms and comprise “non-representative samples” of audiences/engagement.

“Emerging news non-profits: A case study for rebuilding community trust?”: From the University of Wisconsin-Madison, published in Journalism. By Magda Konieczna and Sue Robinson.

The researchers look at survey data and mission statements relating to 46 news nonprofits in order to assess how these newer organizations are conceiving of their mission and relationship to the areas they cover. Many articulate the goal of upending the traditional publisher-passive audience dynamic — the one-way conversation — and seek to give the community a primary role in news creation. Konieczna and Robinson state that these organizations want to “re-define the relationship between journalists and citizens and erase the previous boundaries of informational authority. Not only are these journalists working to have citizens ‘trust’ non-profits to uncover those stories the local news organization failed to report, but they are also actively cultivating a sense of ownership over information and over the news organization itself for citizens.”

But the authors note that, beyond the rhetoric and ideals, there are many unanswered questions: “Controversy, cynicism, and doubts dog these groups. Foundations or wealthy patrons fund many — how sustainable is such a model? Some (not in our sample) decline to disclose where their money comes from — how can we trust the veracity of their information and the altruism of their agenda? Many have a very small readership — how can a group with so little marketability hope to survive amidst the glut of the information age? The very digital technologies that enable these groups to produce and disseminate news and take a shot at rebuilding community trust might also bring about their demise.”

Photo by Anna Creech used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Oct. 31, 2013, 1:16 p.m.
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