Why are we spending so much time ‘Measuring the Impact of Journalism?’

I love this question posed by Greg Linch in this month’s Carnival of Journalism.  Almost every newsroom these days is driven by the need/desire to generate pageviews.  The Washington Post’s newsroom receives hourly updates on what stories are trending in the “most popular” category. A recent New York Times article on the trials and tribulations of Marcus Brauchli noted that 35 reports a day track traffic to the site.

“Editors receive a midday performance alert, telling them whether the site is on track to meet its traffic goals for the day. If it appears that they might miss their goal, editors will order up fresher content,” notes the Jeremy W. Peters of The Times.

The Boston Globe’s newsroom has nice feature in it:  Three screens devoted to Twitter feeds — so reporters can see what is trending.  And, The Globe also has a major effort underway to find ways to get at audience through different methods thanks to their MediaLab operation

These efforts to generate pageviews; develop audience; get visitors to stay on the site longer — are not new.

Way way back in the early years of the Interwebs (pre-2000) I worked with one washingtonpost.com editor who was fond of photo galleries of animals.  Specifically, pandas.  Who doesn’t like a photo gallery with pandas?  Those of us at The Post at the time came up with the phrase:  “guaranteed pageview generator.”  There were a number of stories that we knew would generate pageviews — mostly celebrity news and anything with “Redskins” in the headline.

Did we become whores to the stories we knew would generate pageviews?  We tried not to.  The morning/afternoon/evening news meetings often became  battlegrounds where editors from each section fought hard for homepage space (back when homepage positioning mattered to pageview counts.)  But more often than not those arguments were fought on journalistic merit.

In 2002, I was the political editor at the site and spent months with my team building a package for the 2002 Election coverage.  It was a fairly involved effort with more than a dozen people involved. And, it was a fairly important election.  It was the first election since the 9/11 terror attacks and the first real test for George W. Bush after he won the contested 2000 election.

Most of the homepage the morning after Election Day was devoted to a major interactive feature we had developed which we dubbed Election Explorer. It was mapping before its time — giving state-by-state breakdowns.  We knew people would come to the site looking for results and analysis — we figured we would get a decent amount of pageviews.

Then, in the late morning, as the election coverage dominated the homepage, news broke that Winona Ryder had been convicted on two counts of shoplifting.  Despite my many pleas, the decision was made to blow up the beautifully designed page featuring election coverage to make way for the Winona news.  Several staffers, dismayed with the move to prioritize celebrity news over real news, were spurred to leave a few months later.

It’s only gotten worse….

Pick your story. Brangelina.  Justin Bieber.  American Idol.  The top “search” on The Post’s Web site right now is Mega Millions (the jackpot is $640 million but is this “news?”)

There has always been this push/pull relationship.  Do reporters and editors give readers/viewers/users what they want or what we as journalists feel they  need/should want?  (See: previous election coverage reference.)

Journalism used to be about finding that balance — trying to educate and inform as well as entertain.

Today, it seems more like we’ve become whores to the pageview count.

Perhaps we all need to remember that the true “impact of journalism” rests with the impact we have on people’s lives.  Have we given readers/viewers an amazing piece of writing or video that makes them appreciate parts of their life more?  Have we created an “Oh, wow” moment for readers/viewer?  Have we expanded someone’s universe?  Isn’t that why we got into this business?  Isn’t that what journalism has always done?

Perhaps the real question should be: “Why are we spending so much time measuring the “impact” of journalism?”  Because, it really isn’t quantifiable now, is it?

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About journalismprof

Steve joined the journalism faculty at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in August 2007 and has been working to incorporate multimedia across the curriculum. Since arriving at UMass, Steve has developed three courses modeled after his multimedia journalism course. The courses allow students to work in teams in a newsroom-like environment where they work on packages -- using video, audio and photos to tell stories. He is also working with students on developing amherstwire.com, a news Web site staffed completely by students. Steve has more than 25 years of experience as an editor and reporter for print and online publications, including 10 as an editor at washingtonpost.com. He also edits part-time for espn.com with the NFL and college football network.
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5 Responses to Why are we spending so much time ‘Measuring the Impact of Journalism?’

  1. Pingback: » Carnival of Journalism: Responses to “How can we better measure journalism?” The Linchpen

  2. Pingback: Carnival of Journalism: Responses to “How can we better measure … | Journalism

  3. Pingback: March Carnival of Journalism « Carnival of Journalism

  4. Pingback: Pushing Back Against the Pull of Modern Journalism

  5. As you point out, “impact” doesn’t mean page views. But that doesn’t mean that impact is necessarily impossible to measure. It just means if it is possible to measure, we’re measuring it wrong.

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