It’s no secret that web metrics are playing a huge role in the media industry right now. Whereas journalists once strove to write the catchiest-sounding headlines, many now pack as many key search words into a headline as possible. Writers no longer want to report the most meaningful community issues, but the ones that will get the most online hits.
In “Confusion Online: Faulty Metrics and the Future of Digital Journalism,” Lucas Graves and John Kelly address the monumental differences among various methodologies for measuring web traffic. To phrase it mildly, many discrepancies, nay a chasm of discrepancies, exist among companies that provide measurement services. The authors provide some stupefying statistics from major measurement firms, Nielsen NetRatings and comScore. According to Graves and Kelley, comScore estimated that Washingtonpost.com had 17 million unique visitors in May 2010, while Nielsen NetRatings calibrated 10 million unique visitors for the same month. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that is a 7 million dollar difference. Both companies measured the same thing during the same span of time for the same newspaper. “Confusion” only begins to describe my feelings upon reading this.
Newsrooms rely so heavily on this technology. We market to advertisers based on these numbers. We often alter our editorial practices, our stories, as a result of this data. And yet, it’s so unreliable. There is little standardization in this field. Even basic nomenclature is beyond standardization. It seems assessors cannot even agree on the definition of a Unique visitor.” The irony of journalists revering accuracy in reporting, while simultaneously using potentially inaccurate traffic data, is not lost on me.
Hold your hats, guys, because I’m about to completely contradict myself. C.W. Anderson’s “‘Squeezing humanity through a straw’: The long-term consequences of using metrics in journalism” discusses the issues with journalism metrics, yet she also reflects on the positive aspects of web metrics. Anderson includes a quote from “Washington Post” executive producer Katharine Zaleski: ” There’s news we know people should read — because it’s important and originates with our reporting — and that’s our primary function…But we also have to be very aware of what people are searching for out there and want more information on…If we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our jobs.”
Anderson is right. Journalists need to publish relevant stories, but they should also be aware of what readers want to read. Web metrics can help us accomplish this goal by indicating which stories readers are most interested in. Anderson argues that metrics can be a good thing for journalism after all.
Anderson also suggests that heavy reliance on traffic data removes the human element from reporting. She asserts that “in our rush to capture audience data, we run the risk of oversimplifying the notion of informational desire. We run the risk of squeezing humanity through a digital straw.” Essentially, we shouldn’t look at our readers and see only numbers. Connecting with them as humans, and not data, is an important facet of our jobs and frankly, what makes us journalists.
It seems that the biggest problems with web metrics are as follows: 1. There are little, if any, standardized methodologies for measuring web traffic. This causes major discrepancies among analytics providers and may not present an accurate portrayal of data. 2. Relying on online data so heavily removes the human element from our reporting.
We need to find a balance in our usage of web metrics. It has obvious implications for journalism, good and bad. It’s an extremely powerful tool that we have much to learn about. Heading forward, we need to standardize our measurements, remember our humanity and proceed cautiously.