How do we measure the news?

HÃ¥vard Ferstad


Most other industries have moved on, but the newspaper industry holds on tightly to the page view metric.

The motvation for quick content

Churnalism is often defined as an almost verbatim copy of a press release. This kind of quick and dirty journalism is great, because you can produce huge amounts of articles quickly, which in turn generates lots of page views.

Pseudo science is a good source for churnalism. Just translate or rewrite the story a little bit, and you have an article which will generate page views. Churnalism is also helping in creating false hopes for those who are ill. What are the effects of churnalism on health care news?

Is 250 words + a stock photo really enough to provide depth to difficult issues?

As Thomas Baekdal writes: "We see it all the time. Something happens in the world, and the journalist just switches off his brain, copies/pastes content from somewhere, and adds one almost matching picture from an image provider. And then it is published, with no editorial quality control, no journalistic standard. Nothing."

The people who are motivated by [page views] are not the right people to drive innovation and ensure the future of digital news publishing

In the long run, there is only a small subset of people who are willing to work and continue to be motivated by page views. After all, how many people get into journalism because they want to know how many times an article is loaded in a web browser? Nick Davies was probably not motivated by the number of page views guardian.co.uk were going to get when he was investigating The News of the World.

The people who are motivated by such numbers - most of them managers and editors - are not the right people to drive innovation and ensure the future of digital news publishing. Those who see the web as a canvas for showcasing good journalism and a network for sharing engaging stories are.

Hit counter How the ideal online edition of a newspaper looks to editors, sub-editors and sales people

It is impossible to run any organisation or company without a common understanding of the company's vision - the "why are we doing this?". In many news organisations there's a cognitive dissonance between the vision and what is really being said in daily meetings: When the first and only thing your editors mention is page views, the only vision you're left with is "page views first, quality last".

In this TED talk, Simon Sinek reiterates the importance of a shared "why". The title of his talk is "How great leaders inspire action". It is tempting to say that editors who refuse to talk about anything but web traffic to their staff would probably do an excellent "How bad leaders inspire frustration" talk.

Editors who refuse to speak about anything but web traffic to their staff would probably do an excellent "How bad leaders inspire frustration" talk

Instant gratification or a long-term relationship?

Is a high number of page views a sign of quality? How about the number of people who click to read an article, but realize they have been fooled and just leave the web site? Their visit would count as a click, but the actual time spent on the page would've been about 5-10 seconds. The reader would also have been left with the impression that this publication is a sell-out. But it counts as a page view, and that should make most editors and sales people happy. Instant gratification is more important than a long term relationship with readers.

The ignorance and stupidity of a newspaper's sales department always win over common sense

What about the readers?

Have a look at this slideshow at Time Magazine and click on the "next" button to advance through the series of photos. Some publishers, like Time Magazine, are holding on to the old way of displaying image galleries:

One click = one image = one page = one page impression = one ad impression.

This makes no sense from a user experience and usability perspective. It requires a really motivated user to sit and wait for each page and image to load. But you can count on the ignorance and stupidity of a newspaper's sales department to always win over common sense.

Now compare Time Magazine's solution with Reuters' slideshow. Notice that when you click "next" to get to the next photo, the entire web page does not reload. The photo is replaced by the next one in the slideshow. As a reader who wants to get in a flow and actually enjoy the content, this is great. But this is probably the worst nightmare of anyone selling impression based ads. Which begs the question: What is most important to your news organisation? Giving your readers an enjoyable experience underpinned by good content? Or giving in to every request from your advertisers to fill the entire front page with flying sausages?

What is most important to you? Giving your readers an enjoyable experience or giving in to every request from your advertisers to fill the entire front page with flying sausages?

MediaStorm - the disruptive alternative

If you want to be disruptive in a media world dominated by fast, superficial news, what do you do?

You could do as Brian Storm, founder of MediaStorm: Focus on in-depth multimedia storytelling. MediaStorm works with photographers and videographers who want to make the transition into multimedia storytelling. They hold workshops and create content for NGOs.

What they are offering is something unique, the complete opposite of a content farm with "cheap" content.

Planning, shooting and editing actually takes time. But that doesn't fit the quick and dirty approach to news very well.

"I tell newspapers that are trying to do video right now - they're trying to do a video a day - and I say: 'Why? What is special about a video [a day]? What is your metric?'

So I've challenged several organisations and said: 'Fine. Take two guys. Put one on a video a day. Put one on a video when it's ready and make it excellent. And watch those metrics and give it six months.'

I put my money on the guy who is doing really good stuff, because what will happen is that the other stuff will just turn over and forty people will watch it and it's gone. And the stuff that matters - people will watch it and then they forward it and spread it - and traffic keeps coming over time.

So... what is our goal as a profession? We have to sort of get back to that."

Brian Storm is also shielding staff from actually having to think about business metrics and key performance indicators:

"We can get back to the fundamentals of journalism, the things we've always cared about as journalists. We're not operating in a corporate environment where there is a focus on generating revenue and shareholder value. We don't talk about that around here. We talk about how to tell the best story - the story that really matters.

I would say we're a purpose driven company, not a profit driven company."

I would say we're a purpose driven company, not a profit driven company

A focus on difficult stories

One newspaper manager I worked with at Bergens Tidende put it very succinctly: "Why should we care about Bongo from Congo?". Yes, why indeed. Why tackle difficult issues? It doesn't generate page views. But what's your metric?

The Democratic Republic of Congo sits atop one of the world's most vast deposits of diamonds and gold; yet it is also home to the world's most deadly war. In Rape of a Nation, photojournalist Marcus Bleasdale explores the connection. See the project at http://mediastorm.com/publication/rape-of-a-nation
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