Finding a new measuring stick for journalism

Posted on December 01, 2010 by Janet Coats

Is the real value of journalism based on what we count? And if it is, do we need to start counting different things?

In all aspects of our lives, we keep track of what we value. People are counters by nature; our business lives, our games, the way we govern, wage war and negotiate peace, all revolve around our need to count. Journalism is no exception; we have our own ways of keeping score.

But I’m not sure that in journalism, we’ve been counting what our communities really value about the craft.

For years, we kept track of newspaper subscriptions and single-copy sales. We kept track of the numbers of ads we sold by both the column inch and the dollar amount.

As journalism moved on line, we started to count pageviews and unique visitors and, later, time on site and most frequently emailed stories.

All of these numbers give us an indication of mass. We can tell from them the size of the audience, the number of people who buy a newspaper or look at a story online, the relative value of an advertisement embedded within the journalism. And those are important things to know.

But is that all we need to know to understand the value of journalism?

I’ve been involved in a number of conversations lately that have made me think again about what we should be counting. Those conversations, largely with folks who are working at non-profit local news ventures, have focused on how we track impact and the value of journalism for a particular community.

These are sites that will never draw huge numbers of pageviews or uniques – and, in truth, they don’t want to. Their mission is more tightly focused, either by geography or by subject matter. So when they talk to potential funders – or, for those sites that do accept advertising, to potential advertisers – what metrics should they use to describe their value?

This speaks to the need for metrics that are more focused on your mission than on your traffic. Measuring the impact of the journalism in terms focused on inspiring action is one way to think about it. That suggests some ideas about things that you could actually start to count, like attendance at public meetings or contributions to charities or participation in events. But then again, determining how much the work influenced the behavior would likely be a question mark.

I’m going to spend some more time thinking about what else is worth counting. And I’d be interested in the thoughts of others: What is the value of journalism in a community, and how could we start to quantify that?

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