Uneasy bedfellows: Journalism and impact metrics


If you follow current debates, it appears that measurable, real-world impact is the be-all and end-all of journalism, especially when it comes to political and development themes. How did that happen?

In times of “big data”, we are getting more and more accustomed to a blanket availability of measurements for anything and everything. Whether it is the record of our personal fitness, the uncanny depth of Google’s, Amazon’s, or Facebook’s knowledge about us, or the smart factory – they all promise quantification and subsequent optimisation in the name of a more efficient exploitation: The triad of evidence-based operations research.

Functional journalism

By now it seems almost natural to submit news media to similar principles. And after all, journalism and public communication cost money, so why wouldn’t the funder – the press baron, the public, the donor, even the government – be entitled to a tangible return? NGO fundraisers, for instance, think this way, seeking to leverage journalism for their specific cause: A publication’s success is measured in the amount of donations it triggers. In development, each Dollar or Euro spent on media cannot be spent on vaccines, clear water, sanitation, etc. Accordingly, media are increasingly seen as a direct tool to a tangible end – or else discarded as a frivolous expense.

Indeed, journalism may have that function. Richard Tofel has explained in a seminal 2013 White Paper (PDF) how non-profit news organisation ProPublica tracks the impact of their investigations. From this perspective, the crowning achievement of a journalistic project is, say, a corrupt mayor ousted, a new law adopted, or a harmful product withdrawn from the market. At the very minimum, publications serve the public accountability of government or NGO actions.

However, I would contend that the vast majority of media and journalism do not work that way – at least not that directly. Business has always known the difference between brand marketing and direct response advertising. The latter tries to entice you to buy something specific right now or in the very near future, and thus its impact (or not) materialises in actual short-term sales. Brand marketing, on the other hand, aims to project a product’s public image, to create a reputation, and to shape latent demand. It boils down to that famous John Wanamaker adage: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.“ Perhaps you never get to know which, if any, of your communication measures worked, or whether actually some unfathomable external factor did the trick.

Pavlovian reflexes

I have pointed out before that media audiences typically do not have the kind of Pavlovian reflex we might wish they did. Immediate activity and interaction remain the predilection of a limited, rather specialised demographic, notwithstanding the fact that social media have all but obliterated the barriers for leaving a comment, sharing a message, or giving a thumbs up. Analytical insights suggest that you can count yourself exceptionally lucky if perhaps one tenth of the online audience somehow measurably engages with your media product (aside from consuming it, that is). Worse, such active engagement does not even indicate that the person actually bothered to peruse the piece herself – or considers it particularly relevant, for that matter.

Engagement is for activists, i.e., people who hold deep convictions and find a strong intrinsic motivation to do something about any given matter. This is as true in real life as it is in media consumption. Voter turnout for the arguably rather relevant 2014 European Elections was merely 43%. Much less people show up at rallies and demonstrations. Yet fewer systematically contribute money to causes, or volunteer their time. But those who engage with media products are supposed to be a representative yardstick for impact?

There is one online metric, though, that might be helpful: Total Time Reading (TTR), as the platform Medium calls it. Apparently, people who spend more time reading an article are also more likely to come back to the source of that article in search for more. Of course this is not by any means a novel insight. If you finished an author’s book, you probably liked it. This, in turn, increases the likelihood that you will look for more reading material by that same author. Your favourite newspaper, online magazine, TV series, or RSS feed work exactly like this as well.

The best method to capture the sustained attention of readers and viewers is thus pretty much the opposite of the click-baiting that many media sites seem to cultivate these days. Each person who actually reads and understands an entire article is exponentially more valuable than an incidental visitor. But meaningful reading of an essay – or, now that the written word has a lot of competition, meaningful absorption of a piece of media – depends, above all, on good authorship.

Getting serious

Serious writers have always known that to match the cognitive style of a sympathetic audience, to resonate with readers’ minds and to be understood, requires a strong dose of serendipity. There is reward in making that kind of connection with a single reader, even as more are much appreciated. But it is the hacks who ogle the masses by default and calculate reader engagement in advance.

It may be a stretch to place quality journalism at the same level with high literature. Still, I would insist that the mechanisms at play are similar. There is no denying the educational value of the likes of Tolstoy, Goethe, Joyce, or Woolf. However, do their works serve a tangible, real-world purpose – other than, perhaps, deepening our understanding of the human condition and contributing to the formation of our character and intellect? We may deem their works relevant, precious, and worthwhile – but what’s their direct effect?

As opposed to targeted communications campaigns – which have their own merit and arguably use a different set of tools (or the same tools differently) -, genuine journalism should aspire to loftier, if less tangible, ambitions. Insisting on measurable impact in journalism may just curtail greatness. To quote Austrian journalist Wolf Lotter: „Measurement serves classification, but not comprehension and cognition. You scrutinise closely in order to determine how much of what you already know is there.” (Translation and emphasis mine.)

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For an excellent roundup of the state of discussion in online metrics please see this post by Alan D. Mutter. And Johanna Blakley has a more on measuring the impact of art here. Richard Tofel examines the notion of “total time reading” – and much more related to media impact measurement – in a quite comprehensive and passioned article here. Anya Schiffrin and Ethan Zuckerman discuss similar issues here.

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