Monday, January 7, 2008

Analyzing Analytics

"Under the new rules, the commercial value of specific editorial offerings is estimated with precision, rewards and punishments doled out accordingly, and coverage cut to fit," Edward Wasserman writes in an op-ed in the Miami Herald. He's talking about the brave new world of what he calls "Calibrated Journalism"--the ability to track and analyze readers and page views to judge what's being read and cater accordingly.
we're used to seeing well-loved offerings on commercial media dumped if they don't pull enough people -- or enough of the right people - to keep advertisers satisfied. That's how network TV works.

Still, although network executives re-jigger their Tuesday prime time lineup to please advertisers, editors aren't supposed to redraw their Tuesday front page for the same reason. The journalism business has been different. Although news and commentary offer a setting both for public discourse and sales pitches, traditional ad-supported journalism has worked despite that disharmony, as long as editorial content is passably free of corruption.

There are, of course, great things about being able to track content in the ways that technologies like Google Analytics allow, but certainly it's a sword with two edges and the power that it allows can certainly be used in all the wrong ways.

This argument is echoed in Kira Wisniewski's great essay, "Yellow Journalism 2.0", where she says:

Maybe at this point we’re not quite there just yet, but just like how Hearst and Pulitzer drummed up newspaper circulation in the late nineteenth century by sensationalizing the news, it’s only a matter of time before a new dawn is upon us once traditional news organizations take notice of what’s getting the most hits.

So how can these new ways of understanding readership help journalism instead of hurt it? By looking beyond the simple numbers. The depth and sophistication available in web-page analytics allows for an understanding of who's visiting your site far beyond any previous system for analyzing readers. Those numbers, however, still need interpretation by people that are willing to give them the time.

For instance, a hot story about a celebrity dogfight may bring in a lot of readers, but are those readers valuable? They'll pop in to see the one story, but how many stick around? Dig further into your analytics and you can see the numbers of truly dedicated readers and what they're reading. Dig further still and you can see where they're coming from--universities? other countries? Still further you can discover just how much time they're spending on your site and how many pages they're looking at.

All of these pieces of data mean much more than a simple spike a single story's readers and need to be taken seriously. If you base your decisions on simple hype spikes, you've turned your editorial over to mob rule--and lost your real readers in the process.

(Wasserman piece via Romanesko)