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Journalism Innovation

How we're fighting factory-farm journalism

Let’s talk about metrics.

I want to lift the curtain on Discourse’s editorial process, and reveal one way our approach to journalism is different from most media organizations. Let’s talk about metrics.

Unless you’re a hardcore digital-media nerd, reading that word may have caused you to mentally check out. But understanding metrics is important because they’re a permanent fixture of modern journalism, informing the editorial decisions of virtually every publication. Journalists all over the world are analyzing web traffic to see how readers respond to their stories, often in real-time. 

It’s also a word that strikes fear into the heart of some old-school newshounds who see metrics as the first step towards factory-farm journalism, forcing reporters and editors to churn out low-quality article after article in a relentless race for pageviews. Their concern? Media outlets that depend on advertising will prioritize clickability, virality and audience demand over their duty to inform the public. Then, formulaic, easy-to-replicate and unoriginal content will take over the internet as we know it. (See: cat pics.)

As someone who’s worked at online journalism startups, these fears aren’t entirely unfounded. But there’s also a definite upside. As I mention in my TEDx talk, this focus on metrics has democratized the editorial process. For years, a small, homogeneous group of privileged editors decided what qualified as “news,” but this power has shifted into the hands of a much more diverse group: anyone with an internet connection. Readers today have direct influence over editorial choices. As a result, stories that mainstream media have historically ignored are now getting attention because underrepresented communities are demanding articles that reflect their experiences.

Discourse is trying to find a middle ground — the sweet spot.

Like other industry leaders, we recognize that metrics are a valuable tool for news organizations, but only if they enable journalists to produce nuanced, in-depth stories that tackle systemic issues and provide value to impacted communities. 

So in May, I created a system that prioritized metrics for our website, newsletters and social platforms based on genuine engagement (something that publications worldwide are only starting to explore). While we still track broad metrics like “reach” and “uniques,” we’re far more interested in those that help us achieve our main goal: engaging Canadians in productive dialogue. That means looking at how people are interacting with our reporters and journalism, instead of just how many. Are we reaching people who need to hear our stories most? How much time do they spend consuming Discourse content? Are we sparking constructive conversation between people who wouldn’t otherwise speak to each other? Put simply, we use metrics to serve our journalism and our audience — not the other way around. That’s why we’re focusing on quality over quantity.

What do you think? How do you interact with the media you value most? Are we hitting the mark? I’d love to hear from you: Contact me via email, Twitter or Facebook.