What´s the purpose of journalism? Impact. Three lessons on how to measure it.

What are we here for, we journalists? What is the purpose of our work in news — in a time when politicians call us liars and users are losing trust in us?

Reach is still the main incentive in newsrooms: clicks, print run, the market share. On a different note: Aren´t these cats super cute?

I often find myself clicking on that kind of stuff. Many do. So if reach — clicks — defined whether or not we’re doing a good job, the invention of cat content should be considered the greatest journalistic success of all times.

Let´s be honest. Focusing on nothing but reach is not only one sided, it’s also misleading. Take the classical market share (still what — not only — German Broadcasters strive for). It measures how many old people watch linear television while younger audiences prefer sharing videos on Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram.

So: What is the purpose of journalism? The purpose is impact.

We want to hold the powerful accountable, today more than ever. We want to initiate important debates and burst the filter-bubbles. We want to spark critical discussions in society. We want to enable citizens to make smart decisions. So, if these are our goals, then that’s what we should measure. But how?

Video summing up some of the findings on how to measure journalistic impact in society

Finding an answer to that question was my challenge as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow studying media innovation at Stanford.

Here are some findings from my journey:

Lesson 1: Be clear about what your media organization stands for, and have the courage to define your goals accordingly and clearly.

Why is that so important? Here is why:

I was lucky enough to spend two months in New York City before starting my life on the Stanford campus. I met with people at BuzzFeed (who are bascially the inventors of cat content), the New York Times, Mic.com, Chartbeat and many other companies who all want to measure journalistic impact. Then, I moved on to connect with media and startup experts of impact measurement on the West Coast.

New York City

The most dedicated and successful work I’ve seen has been done by:

(1) Lindsay Green-Barber with her impact tracker. She is a strategy and research consultant who used to work for Reveal, the platform where the Center for Investigative Reporting publishes its work. Green-Barber recently published a study about her findings on the topic.

(2) Chalkbeat, a website that reports on education, based in NYC. The Chalkbeat folks developed an impact software called MORI.

(3) Michael Keller, who developed and coded a software called Newslynx during his fellowship at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School.

(4) ProPublica, an investigative newsroom, and its president, Dick Tofel.

When I evaluated best practises of measuring impact by the end of my year in Palo Alto, I realized that those four all figured out one common thing. The prerequisite for measuring impact is: defining what kind of impact your content is supposed to have.

Take ProPublica as an example. It has more than 30 award-winning reporters whose aim is to change reality with their stories. Meaning: If they report on a discriminatory law and the law gets changed as a consequence, then that´s impact. And only that. So that´s what they measure. And that´s what they try to increase.

Lesson 2. If you fail to achieve the goals you set, figure out why, and adapt your behavior accordingly.

When it comes to measuring impact, journalism can learn also from Silicon Valley. Start-ups in Northern California gather data about pretty much everything. They clearly define their goals. And if they don’t achieve what they hoped for, they “pivot” without hesitation (pivot means to change strategic course or direction in Silicon Valley-language).

Stanford campus — right in the center of Silicon Valley

Take Udacity, a company based only a few miles from Stanford´s campus. It was founded by the German Stanford professor and entrepreneur Sebastian Thrun. It offers online courses, for example in coding. Of course they care about reach, too; they want as many clients as possible. But what they care about even more is this: Do their graduates find jobs? That’s the main reason people take Udacity courses, so that´s what the company measures. If students do get jobs, Udacity´s reputation increases. That attracts more users and makes Thrun´s start-up grow fast (which is the ultimate goal of every Silicon Valley company).

In order to reach the defined goal, over time, Udacity decided to take some radical steps. First, they announced publicly that they would pay graduates their money back if they don’t find work. Second, they built a consulting company within Udacity, where potential employers can hire coding graduates for projects, in order to get known to them and, hopefully, to hire them in the end.

Lesson 3: Keep it simple. The overarching goal of measuring impact should be to understand the patterns of the journalistic impact of your media organization.

One of the experts I interviewed said that measuring impact is impossible, but that we need to find a way to do it.

I disagree: It is possible. We might not get every data point right and comparable with all other data points at all times. But we can gather the data we most care about (Lesson 1!), in order to understand patterns of our journalistic impact over time. And that should be the overall ambition. Because measuring impact is not a goal in itself.

We do it because it enables us to work on more and more impactful stories.

Any questions? Email me, I’m continuing the journey of how we might measure & increase our journalistic impact in society: afichter@stanford.edu