Measuring Without Numbers

How community engagement moves beyond the story

Greg Ligon, Studio Museum in Harlem, NY — Photo by Kristine Villanueva

I recently had dinner with a group of friends, one of which, writes for a popular, yet demanding blog-type platform that favors numbers over quality. A piece will go through numerous rounds of edits but will still have its fair share of errors, probably due to upper management being overused, overworked or inexperienced. This person described the frustration and insurmountable pressure they had to endure in order to make a certain number of shares and hits to be considered successful. That is the hard and fast business of a budding young writer on the web.

While measuring success in this way presents its own problems, it’s not a far cry from the way reporters interact with metrics, if at all. I told this person that newsrooms can’t measure success solely by those metrics because it lies in a deeply traditional view of engagement — likes, shares, views and comments. With new social media and internet platforms, outlets should do well to redefine what community engagement means in order to understand the impact of their work. In other words, “did my story do well?” should take on a whole new meaning.

Jeff Jarvis explains in Geeks Bearing Gifts, “There is a richer set of metrics that matter to the mission of journalism — metrics around impact and accomplishment. These metrics must start not with us but with the people we serve. They must measure whether they meet their needs and accomplish their goals.”

From the Odyssey Editorial Handbook

While other journalists may insist that their editorial process takes precedence over that of other internet platforms, I would disagree. Take for example, the Odyssey Online, a millennial-based platform that pushes first person narratives. While not in the realm of news, their methods are similar to the traditional journalistic process in which a journalist pitches an idea, reports on this idea and files a piece for an editor before it’s posted. That’s when engagement rolls in, from likes, shares, views and comments. Engagement is all in post production. This model lacks true community engagement because the media presents itself as a one-way information stream. But that perception of media is a lie. Unlike the days of ye olde print, we now have more ways of listening to our audiences. Once we begin to do more listening, we can start to think about the ways we can use numbers to make better decisions about our editorial processes. This in part, could do with whether or not a newsroom should spend their resources covering a certain topic. More importantly, metrics can be an indicator of specific needs that should prompt journalists to provide a service that can better inform and engage.

There are news outlets making strides in this direction. Vox, founded by the Washington Post’s Wonk Blog creator Ezra Klein, launched a private Facebook group for Obamacare enrollees based on comments they received from their articles on Trump’s healthcare bill. The group was created as a space for people to talk about their concerns, pose questions for journalists and for journalists to share their work. In this circumstance, Vox uses three types of community engagement as defined by strategist Joy Mayer: outreach, conversation and collaboration. That is, Vox identified concerns and met their audience where they are, created dialogue and leveraged their network to report on healthcare stories that specifically affected them. Rather than waiting until the end of coverage to engage, the audience was involved throughout the reporting process by keeping an open dialogue with the reporters who were investigating their questions and concerns. Vox considered this project successful and recently launched another private Facebook group based on engagement with their podcast The Weeds, that covers policy regarding marijuana. It’s obvious that these groups weren’t stories but helped target audience needs for impactful journalism. Other places like the non-profit investigative outlet, ProPublica, also uses crowdsourcing techniques for community involvement. The one way information stream stops and communities become stakeholders in journalists’s work. As Meg Pickard, The Guardian’s head of digital engagement would likely say, journalistic impact lies in untapped potential.

This is not to say that numbers aren’t important at all — it’s what we do with them that counts. We must think of more meaningful ways to interact with metrics to better understand what success and impact looks like (and maybe ease the burden of having writers shoulder numbers for ad sales). Along with news organizations, I’d also invite other internet platforms to take a page out of the community engagement playbook to think of the best ways to reach their communities. We can either take spikes in engagement as victories or as opportunities to gain greater insights on how we can improve our work.

This is also not to say that the story is dead, just that there are more avenues journalists can explore, especially since posting a story on the web can feel a lot like a shouting match among publishers. It’s time to start getting creative with the way we help and inform our audiences, whether through interactive projects like the New York Times’s “Can You Live on the Minimum Wage?” game or ProPublica’s Documenting Hate project. Either way, our audiences and the communities that rely on our coverage should be at the heart of what we do. And maybe — just maybe — shouting at people is not the best way to serve them.