Cargo cults or the Wright Brothers? Metrics can improve newsrooms but only if the culture is ready

GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram recently riffed on a superb piece by Stijn Debrouwere about the cargo culting of analytics in newsrooms. Stijn argued that publishers have aped tech companies by bringing data into their newsroom, but, having little idea of what to do with the data, are using it as more totem than tool, unable to distinguish what is measurable from what matters.

In my experience at Chartbeat, I’ve seen newsrooms that might fit that cargo cult description and I’ve seen newsrooms that are stunning models of the effective use of data. What’s far more common however, is to see a publisher that’s somewhere in the middle of transitioning between the two. The speed of that transition depends on the newsroom’s culture and how much it is dedicated to measuring itself against not simply established metrics but metrics that matter.

Technology is fast, culture is slow

It’s easy to forget that the vast majority of newsrooms only began using actionable real-time data in the last three years. Prior to that, the most newsroom managers got was a copy of their analysts’ end of day email report, which, like the black box of the aircraft, was an interesting tool for post-mortem analysis but delivered rather too late to be helpful.

Bringing real-time data into the newsroom did not just presage a change in technology but a change in culture. Previously, it was arguably possible for journalists to pretend that they weren’t writing for the web but still for publication on dead trees. Now, pressing the publish button is no longer the end of the process but the midpoint of a story’s arc. Editorial can no longer fire and forget with blind confidence; they can instantly see where they are succeeding or failing in communicating what they have to say and the best exponents are constantly adapting to ensure their stories are not just published but read.

In this context, pointing to cargo cults — where no matter how much the tribesmen waved their arms no planes were going to come — ignores the very real path that many publishers are following in building more adaptive newsrooms. As with all technologies, the future is unevenly distributed, with data experts and ostriches forming a continuum that most newsrooms are navigating at their own pace. A better analogy than cargo cults might come from the early days of TV, where on some channels you would find a radio announcer simply sitting in front of the camera and reading from a piece of paper while others were embracing the full spectrum of what television as a visual and audio medium could do. The technology had changed, the culture was still catching up.

The key lesson for publishers is that it’s not enough to simply drop in new technology and expect to see a newsroom transformed. There’s hard work to be done to evolve the culture of a newsroom and if that work on occasion looks like the behavior of a cargo cult, we should also remember that for the longest time so would have the activities of the Wright Brothers.

Metrics will always seem bad when the goals are wrong

Any attempts to evolve culture within a publisher will find that doing so against the combined will of editorial is both excruciating and pointless. This rings doubly true for those attempting to introduce data to the newsroom where there are collective fears that metrics are a corrupting influence, at best pointless and at worst dangerous.

Editors worry that the influence of metrics will lead journalism down a path recently skewered by the Onion in which Miley Cyrus’s tongue will always take precedence over military action in Syria. Those editors are right to warn of the unintended impact of thoughtless metrics.

We saw it in medicine when U.S. hospitals agreed to make public their mortality rates in the 1990s. What better metric? However, it turned out that the easiest way to improve mortality rates was to stop admitting the sickest patients (luckily the practice was stopped).

We see it in education, where Atlanta schools superintendents were recently indicted on racketeering charges because they forgot that their goal was not to have the highest test scores but to educate their students. And we see it in publishing, where linkbait, content farms and slideshows are the consequence of chasing pageviews.

In each of these scenarios, people confused what was measurable with what mattered. The purpose of a hospital is not to minimize the number of sick people it deals with, the purpose of education is not to narrow the minds of its students and the purpose of publishing is not to simply make people click more.

In this, the obsession with pageviews has let us all down. Pageviews do not measure the quality of a piece of content or its ability to hold and engage an audience; it’s a measure of the provocativeness of link copy. That’s it. It’s highly gameable, and by separating the metric of success (clicking on the link) from any relation to the content itself, that means the cheapest, most provocative link creator will always have the advantage.

Here’s the thing though. When you actually sit down with publishers, across the board there is an enormous degree of consistency around what their goals are and what really matters to them — and it’s not pageviews.

What matters is building an audience who knows who you are, likes what you do and most importantly comes back to you again and again. Your commercial team isn’t selling Mercedes on that random spike of pageviews from Lithuania (an audience who will never return), they are selling a loyal returning audience and the growth of that audience will be the test of sustainability and success. With new models such as paywalls, events and native advertising, the truth of this has only become more stark; if a quality publisher wishes to be successful they should stand up in front of their team and say “I don’t give a damn about whether we can squeeze one more click from our audience today. I just want them to come back tomorrow.”

When you eschew chasing pageviews and make building a loyal audience your goal, it not only aligns commercial and editorial goals, but also dramatically increases the pace of cultural change within newsrooms. It turns out that what loyal audiences care about is what good editorial teams care about too: great articles that capture time and attention. It’s amazing how fast editorial teams embrace and act on data when the underlying message is to write stuff that people love.

So Debrouwere is right: if you simply throw technology at editorial teams but don’t put them in a position to act on that data; if you focus on damaging metrics and make no attempt to evolve culture, then an intransigent cargo cult is all you can hope for.

However, if you align metrics with mission and realize that this evolution is as much about adapting people as technology then an aligned, adaptive newsroom is within reach for all.

Tony Haile is the CEO of Chartbeat, the real-time analytics service used by 80 percent of the top U.S. publishers and in 37 countries around the world. He’s been Adjunct Professor of journalism at Columbia University and in 2012 was named one of the 100 most creative people in business by Fast Company.