Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Tomorrow’s metric for news is action

“As journalism gets more one-to-one, causes become more personal, and communities divide into subsets of subsets, someone will find a metric to meet the moment.”

The tools we use to measure the value of our journalism seem to fail us: Metrics don’t match our lofty objectives, or their innate inflexibility forces us to chase the wrong goals. They’ve proven especially vexing in the digital era, with so many available and wide disagreement over which ones ought to matter. On both the editorial and business sides of what we do, the measurements we’re using consistently seem behind the times.

elise-huBut metrics are important, because what we measure, we tend to become. Chasing ratings tilts TV news toward celebretainment. Chasing pageviews leads to annoying slideshow page reloads.

This year, the problematic pageview seemed to give way to “social lift” or some measure of sharing reach. And time on site or time reading became key proxies for the “engagement” we all seek. The innovative platform (and aggregator) Medium considers time reading its key metric. And the squishy definition of “quality” for Facebook includes “something that leads you to stay away from Facebook for awhile.”

By next year, I expect someone will crack the code of how to measure something more sophisticated: journalism’s influence, be it in civic action or cultural outcomes. Today’s metric may be time, but tomorrow’s is action.

This isn’t a new issue. Public media held “impact summits” nearly four years ago identifying the five elements we need in order to measure journalism’s impact. These days, ProPublica diligently tracks reactions to its work — their investigations follow the impact of their revelations. The Solutions Journalism Network identifies solutions or actions by design. And the Knight-Mozilla Fellowship at The New York Times is crafted specifically around figuring out how we measure the results of our work in the civic sphere. So getting to a more sophisticated metric is work that’s already well under way. 2014 could be the year we figure it out.

We’ve arrived at a choice cultural moment for an action or “impact” measurement. We have smaller, more fractured communities, highly decentralized civic involvement, and ever-personalized media. Since the link between journalism and civic action often reveals itself most clearly at the local level, the circumstances are right for a new way to measure it.

First, the community situation. On my beat, the one clear theme that’s emerged is how often connections in the cloud have fed the formation of tighter and more specific offline communities. Tomorrow’s hot communities are as narrow as “the people of Powder Mountain, Utah,” a group that came together to purchase a single mountain for the purpose of creating place around a shared ethos. Or “the people who live in one house in San Francisco” — a community of like-minded millennials who came together to build community in a house by sharing food, cars, and ideas. Local communities are becoming smaller subsets as software reorganizes the world.

At the same time, we’re also seeing civic participation get decentralized and highly personal. Ethan Zuckerman of MIT’s Center for Civic Media outlined this notion in a talk he gave at the Nieman Foundation’s 75th anniversary — arguing that when it comes to young people and digital activism, a new form of civics has taken shape. It focuses on agency, participation, and making an impact at a very small scale. “It’s rarely people saying, ‘I need to be involved in a giant wide slate of issues.’ It tends to be a very pointillist approach to involvement. It’s trying to figure out ‘How can I help economics with a single loan?’…Or giving through Donors Choose, giving to a specific campaign around a specific teacher.”

Then there’s the media moment, in which we can all create our own media — Facebook updates and beyond — and easily see the results of our participation. How is news connecting these narrowly drawn communities with their ability to make an impact? News organizations consistently do this kind of work already, notably after crises. In the wake of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado or Hurricane Sandy, news organizations become bridges between people who want to help and ways to actually help.

“We need media to step up and say: If you want to have an impact on society, if you want to be an educated citizen, we have to help you how to figure out how to be involved, and involved in a way where you can actually see the impact of what you’re doing,” Zuckerman says.

As journalism gets more one-to-one, causes become more personal, and communities divide into subsets of subsets, someone will find a metric to meet the moment. That’s my prediction, anyway. I could be way off and 2014 could be the year singing maps take over the Internet.

Elise Hu is a reporter at NPR covering the intersection of technology and culture.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20