Chartbeat, Wall Street and local news: the threats and challenges for reporting and accountability in your town

Image courtesy Chartbeat.com

On a recent visit to the Online News Association conference in Washington, DC, I was roaming the exhibit hall looking at all the new tools and platforms for modern digital journalism.

As I walked past the Chartbeat booth, a nice worker asked me if I had heard about her product.

“Oh yeah, I’m glad I don’t have it anymore,” I said with my usual mix of snark and seriousness.

“What… you are?,” she asked.

“Don’t get me wrong — you have a fantastic product. I’m just glad I don’t have access to Chartbeat crack anymore!”

While I was mostly trying to fend off a sales pitch, the interaction got me spending some of my time as a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University thinking about how real-time metrics have changed journalism — and particularly local journalism.

I started producing online news in 1999 — in the days of really primitive Analog stats. Once a day or so we’d see some general usage patterns and overall “pageviews.” It was great to see it grow but it was not very actionable information.

In time, metrics got more advanced of course. The day our Omniture instance was upgraded from daily updating to hourly information was a big deal. With it, the digital editorial philosophy morphed — slideshows became a bigger part of the diet and it was easier to justify producing content on flashy things like car crashes because you could see the benefit in that top line pageview number that drove praise and ad revenue.

But in the last six or seven years, Chartbeat has ruled the day. Real-time feedback on what’s hot. What people are looking at at this very minute became the currency.

When chained with social media, you have a powerful combination: Post a story to social media channels and watch the Chartbeat number climb and climb.

Quickly you get a sixth sense for what will drive the number. Great investigative piece your staff worked for months on? Maybe OK numbers.

Image courtesy WRDW.com. But it could be any local site.

Quick AP wire or national content that all you have to do is link to? SPECTACULAR numbers. Blue dress. April the giraffe. Kim Kardashian.

Local news orginizations used to be laser-focused on coverage of the area inside their given market area. Sure, newscasts and newspapers had some national coverage as part of a complete report — but it wasn’t front and center.

Now, with social media algorithms to chase and Chartbeat numbers to drive — any piece of clicky content wins. Brand standards have eroded and local news is often tertiary to fluffier or more controversial content.

This trend is coupled with a general decline in the amount of display advertising sold on local news websites across the country. Companies as have added a range of product offerings to local digital portfolios. Most station and newspaper groups now sell Facebook ads, Google ads and audience network ads alongside banners on the local .com and mobile app.

This is helping to boost digital revenues for these companies — but the number of dollars going to the products produced by local journalists is on the decline according to conversations I’ve had in recent months with leaders in the local news space. (This is something I’ve written about before).

Consumers are awash in information — with most of it coming directly via their social media feeds. With algorithms programmed by Facebook and others — local operations have learned to work these systems for maximum engagement. But oftentimes good journalism and high engagement don’t mesh.

My colleague at JSK Lisa Rossi recently wrote on this topic and thinks maybe Chartbeat and products like it shouldn’t always drive coverage and help determine what matters:

Disciples of the real-time analytics tool Chartbeat already know… Readers click on stories that land on… extreme ends of the spectrum. A major car accident. A medical miracle. Massive government malfeasance.
But the fact is, while definitely worthy of coverage, these are anomalies within a community, as opposed to a reflection of the topics that drive conversation in everyday life.
I wonder if we should flip the script we’ve learned from Chartbeat. Why not measure our impact differently? Perhaps the topics of intense interest to individual readers actually do have deep meaning that we are just not seeing? Have we really taken the time to listen?

Where does local news go from here? The vast majority of local journalism consumers in the United States consumes comes from a small handful of companies — most of them publicly traded. This has led to an industry focused on key performance indicators (KPIs) that are often predicated on revenue numbers reported to Wall Street each quarter. That means a lack of ability to truly focus on long-term projects in many cases — with the threat of layoffs or other cuts always present.

The focus on short-term numbers — a Chartbeat gauge, monthly budget attainment, quarterly revenue goal — has caused local media in many cases to get lost in measurement and lose track of audience needs. Sure, posting about April the giraffe may be great for the metrics mentioned above, but does it cause consumers to lose your local brand in a blur of sameness in the social feed? The once strong local newspaper or television station is posting highly engaging content about a blue dress, but the expensive investigation gets lost.

You can look for lots of places to place blame: the Facebook algorithm. Big bad Wall Street investors. Hyper-addictive metrics. Maybe even shallow consumers. But when added up, it has led to a lack of confidence in local media brands and potential long-term impacts to the ability of local journalism to sustain itself and do the hard work of probing governments, digging into wrongdoing and serving their communities.

Local newsrooms have suffered incredible declines in employment (the Bureau of Employment Statistics predicts a ten percent decrease in staffing for radio, television and newspaper staffing by 2026 — on top of major declines over the past 15 years). Without changes, inventive ideas and an entrepreneurial mindset, local journalism and the affects it has on the lives of citizens could become even more endangered than it is now.

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