All the News That’s Fit to Click: How Metrics Are Transforming the Work of Journalists

Journalism is judgment about what matters. It is the primary way we understand the wider world around us.

This judgment springs from the particular hero system that made Russiagate the most important news story in America from 2016 to 2019 and George Floyd’s death the most important story for the summer months of 2020 (along with Covid).

Here are some excerpts from this 2021 book:

* …journalists… “occupy jobs centered on the construction and dissemination of what might be called interpretive information or knowledge” rather than aesthetic or artistic products. Whereas individual creativity and self-expression are idealized in artistic fields, journalism’s occupational ideology prizes considered judgment—the ability to quickly absorb, adjudicate between, and publicly communicate complex and conflicting sources of information. Furthermore, journalism is an anomalous case of cultural production in that its practitioners operate according to a set of normative, rather than artistic, commitments. As media scholar Mike Ananny puts it, “Unlike artistic fields of cultural production, the press—ideally and principally—pursues its autonomy in order to advance public interests.”

Therefore, while artistic workers seek aesthetic autonomy, journalists primarily seek professional autonomy—the ability to practice newswork according to a set of collective normative values and with relative insulation from political actors and the market.40 Yet because the U.S. press is heavily commercialized, many of the management tensions and challenges are the same as those found in other forms of industrial cultural production. If aesthetic cultural work is defined by the art-commerce
relation, we might say that journalism is characterized by the democracy-commerce relation.

* It is difficult to publicly measure something or someone without changing it or them in some way. Thus a second thing that evaluative numbers do in the social world is elicit a response from the people and organizations they measure. Scholars call this phenomenon reactivity.

* All mediated forms of culture—from music to television to books—are “carriers of meaning” that influence how we understand the social world.1 Journalism is among the most powerful cultural industries in this regard—not for nothing has it been called “the primary sense-making practice of modernity.”2 It is mainly through news consumption that many of us encounter political leaders and other powerful figures, cultivate a sense of empathy (or antipathy) toward people in different life circumstances, learn about and contextualize contemporary events that are outside our immediate, observable environs, and develop a sense of the crucial issues animating public life.

* Much of journalism history in the United States can be understood as the profession’s ongoing efforts to establish independence from the state and the market, both of which are generally viewed as corrupting influences on editorial freedom and journalistic integrity.6 A range of established journalistic norms and practices, such as refusing gifts, denying sources quote approval, and establishing a “wall” between the editorial and business sides of news organizations, stem from efforts to maintain autonomy.

* As journalism scholar Michael Schudson puts it in an essay pointedly titled “Autonomy from What?”: “What keeps journalism alive, changing, and growing is the public nature of journalists’ work, the nonautonomous environment of their work, the fact that they are daily or weekly exposed to the disappointment and criticism of their sources (in the political field) and their public (whose disapproval may be demonstrated economically as readers cancel their subscriptions or viewers change channels).”

* As sociologist Herbert Gans wrote in an oft-quoted passage from his classic newsroom ethnography Deciding What’s News, journalists “had little knowledge about the actual audience and rejected feedback from it. Although they had a vague image of the audience, they paid little attention to it; instead, they filmed and wrote for their superiors and for themselves, assuming . . . that what interested them would interest the audience.”

* print-era journalists rejected audience research because doing so was one of the only means to protect their always-tenuous professional status. Sociologist Andrew Abbott has characterized professions as “somewhat exclusive groups of individuals applying somewhat abstract knowledge to particular cases.”

* The accessibility of journalistic language is helpful for informing the public, but it also renders journalists’ claims to specialized expertise potentially suspect. In the absence of a structural closure mechanism that limits entry into the profession or a repertoire of abstract knowledge, journalists create and maintain boundaries
around their profession by “doing things a certain way and privileging certain rationales for those actions.”

* the opinions and assessments of other journalists—rather than outsiders—typically hold the most weight when considering whether the job has been done well or not.

* editors also often perceive metrics as a threat to their own managerial authority and their privileged position atop the newsroom hierarchy.

* In Deciding What’s News, Gans presciently noted that the indifference to audience research that he observed among journalists might well change “should commercial considerations become more urgent” within news organizations.

* There is arguably no other publication in the United States—possibly the world—with
its [New York Times] symbolic significance and level of reputational capital.

* To excel at the traffic game, journalists needed a mixture of luck and skill that was elusive and difficult to reliably reproduce. Journalists spoke regularly of being surprised by traffic. Pieces they expected to be “hits” often drew a smaller-than-
anticipated audience, while articles that seemed “niche” could unexpectedly become popular.

* Grinding in the blogging world had an additional element of intrigue: there was always the tantalizing possibility that any ground-out post could become a surprise viral hit.

* Gawker Media staffers told me their moods rose and fell with the traffic numbers reported in the dashboard, sometimes to a degree that alarmed them.

* “Ideas about separating, purifying, demarcating and punishing transgressions have as their main function to impose system on an inherently untidy experience. It is only by exaggerating the difference between within and without . . . that a semblance of order is created.” (Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger)

* Journalists at the Times, for example, frequently drew positive contrasts between the Times’s approach to metrics and that of other publications… When I prefaced a question to Cynthia, a Times reporter, by mentioning that the Washington Post had a real-time display of the paper’s top-ranked stories on its newsroom wall, she was incredulous: “They have that at the Washington Post? . . . Oh god, this is so depressing to me.”

* Given the Times’s long-held organizational self-perception as the apex of journalistic professionalism in the United States…

* Although Gawker staffers like Felix and Alison saw BuzzFeed’s editorial approach as synonymous with clickbait and “cheap viral crap,” BuzzFeed itself emphatically rejected this characterization, going so far as to publish a post in 2014 headlined “Why BuzzFeed Doesn’t Do Clickbait.” Ben Smith, who was BuzzFeed editor in chief at the time, argued that those who associate BuzzFeed with clickbait “confuse what we do with true clickbait,” which was, in his view, a headline that baits the reader into clicking by overpromising on what the story, once clicked on, actually delivers. By contrast, Smith wrote, BuzzFeed’s headlines tend to be “extremely direct”: for example, “ ‘31 Genius Hacks for Your Elementary School Art Class’ is just that.”

* Metrics confront journalists with a powerful mixed message. If they ignore the data altogether, they risk being seen as foolishly obstinate, patronizing toward their audience, and behind the digital times—in effect guaranteeing their professional obsolescence and possibly facing managerial censure or even job loss. But if they rely on metrics too much, they risk corrupting their sense of professional integrity and autonomy, and potentially sullying their reputation. To make matters more challenging, there is no widely agreed-upon normative standard within the profession for how to navigate between these two extremes.

* In the common spaces of the New York Times headquarters in midtown Manhattan,
displays of any kind of metrics data were conspicuously absent. Unlike at Gawker, where vast swaths of wall were occupied by large flat screens displaying various
real-time traffic rankings of stories and writers, some of the Times’s prominent wall space was covered with framed reprints of each of the paper’s Pulitzer Prize–winning
stories, of which it has published more than any other news organization. The Times’s Pulitzer Wall, as it is known, was a point of pride for staffers, symbolizing the organization’s formidable prestige.

* Editors’ sense of “news judgment” is intuitive and inscrutable (and thus difficult for reporters to argue with). By contrast, metrics had the potential to be equally visible and accessible to all staffers in a newsroom. And because of metrics’ interpretive ambiguity, a reporter could look at the same data as her editor and draw her own—possibly contradictory—conclusions.

As such, Times editors restricted reporters’ access to metrics because they perceived the data as a potential threat, not only to the quality of the paper’s journalism but also to their own managerial authority.

“If you think about an editor, really the only thing an editor has—like their full job is based on their judgment. Because that’s really what they do, is they just sit and use their judgment to edit stories and decide how important they are and where they should go on the site. And so replacing that with metrics of some sort is a massive threat to their livelihood and kind of value in the job.”

* Although they withheld systematic access to metrics, Times editors would strategically disclose particular data points to reporters when they wanted to accomplish a specific managerial purpose or elicit a desired reaction.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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