Journalism shouldn't be afraid of web metrics

 by Martin Belam, 17 September 2010

There has been some recent discussion about the impact of metrics in the newsroom on the Nieman Journalism Lab site.

It often seems to me that fear of measuring the performance of news gets simplified by many people into worrying that the outcome will be:

'X which is trashy is popular. Y which is dull but important isn't popular. Therefore we must do more x and less y and distort our news values'

Which isn't the point at all.

The point of measuring and understanding an audience behaviour surely has to be to better deliver your news values.

Big numbers tend to make you lump things together into big audiences, and as Jay Rosen made the point in a very thoughtful essay "The Journalists Formerly Known as the Media", if the audience is no longer a 'mass audience', then the people making up the media are no longer a mass of people either.

When I think about metrics on a news website, I wonder why, as an individual journalist who publishes articles that appear on the web, you wouldn't want to know how many people read your piece, what percentage of them were moved to comment, who linked to it and what did they say, and all the other information that web metrics can confer.

Does a 3,000 piece about a serious issue have a very short average on time page? In which case there is something about the presentation of the topic that is turning off your audience. If you do a 500 word piece on topic x, a video on topic x, and an interactive explaining topic x, which of those resonates most with your audience according to the metrics?

I do wonder if this might turn out to be a generational thing.

Young journalists coming into the profession today are used to having their web actions visibly measured. If you post a video to YouTube anybody can see how many views it has or hasn't earned. Built into the interfaces of Twitter and Facebook are constant reminders of how much anything you have done online has been retweeted or 'Liked'.

And if you are in the habit of being exposed to those metrics about all of your online activity, why would you suddenly stop caring about them once you reached the newsroom?


It shows how journalists, like politicians, can become so arrogant and disconnected from reality and the people who read their articles that they just don't care anymore about what the people think of their work. Plus when they know they are putting garbage out, they are terrified of hearing that people call it garbage.

Take the mainstream media - they are sinking rapidly and losing credibility more and more to independent journalism; unedited journalism. That's because people are figuring out they're being lied to and controlled and objectivism is dead in mainstream media.

The mainstream care less about engaging people because they feel they are above people, and there to shape peoples thoughts, not to get people thinking for themselves. That's why they pander to the low intelligence formulas to keep people glued to their pieces (instead of true, great content): Fear and trash.

Metrics to people who peddle crap will be an inconvenient truth.

I'm taking psychology right now, we actually did some different tests and analyzed the results. We used social networking platforms such as Facebook and Twitter and compared the two how they influenced peoples decisions to purchase products. People tend to often listen to what their peers have to say, which is why social networking is so successful now a days. Too many people care about what others think.

I completely agree with this post. At the end of the day, numbers never lie. Whether it is journalism or any webpage, going through your analytics tells you the success. Most people that leave comments are going to tell you how great it is. Looking at the average time spent on the article via analytics will give you the true insight of how well your audience took in your new piece.

Some very good points Martin. Really pleased I am now aware of the Nieman Journalism Lab and I was amazed that when I visited their website on my iphone, it automatically pointed me to a download of their free iphone app.

I think the hardest part in the evolution of modern journalists will be making it easy to find and include other more engaging elements such as video, presentations, etc. Especially as it’s hard enough to encourage the discipline of including related links within content to any online writer, I even find it a bit of a chore myself.

I think that your "generational thing" comment was a little unfair(or deliberately controversial :P), you may be correct but I would prefer to think that its more to do with the need for cultural change through encouragement and explanation.

Well this encouraged me to write a blog post myself - “Positive signs for the future of traditional media” :)

Unfortunately everything is being done in the name of fame and profit. I'm not sure if the mainstream media is losing credibility or for that matter the tabloid press. Maybe a few thinking people see through them and a few journalists like John Pilger try to present the truth, but the majority of people don't seem to have a clue. They believe whatever they read. In many ways the internet isn't helping either. So much stuff is put out and taken as factual. I really despair sometimes. The world is in such a mess.

Hi Martin,

Great post. As a young journalist who has a blog I am entirely used to viewing figures. In fact it can be quite obsessive seeing whether a post is popular and if your articles are reaching people.

It's a shame that doesn't seem to translate into the newsrooms.

I have posted a link to this article in my latest blog NCTJ and Beyond which looks at the best blogs from the week.

Keep up to date on my new blog