The public report card that has everyone scratching their heads

Liz Spayd, CJR editor: There is an interesting report newly released from the Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center on how our obsession with measuring traffic impacts newsroom culture. If your stories do well, everyone cheers, and if they don’t, anxiety ensues. Many managers are probably somewhat new to handling this issue, so what advice might you have?

Jill: Warning: if you are one of those managers who believe employees should park their emotions at the workplace door, it’s time to expand your limited vision. You lead people, not robots. Even the most stoic staffers are affected now that analytics are a giant public report card. Smart managers know their people well enough to help them process the pride, the pain – and most of all, the context of data.

I stress this in newsrooms everywhere: Newsroom leaders must manage the meaning of the metrics. You do it on three levels:

Strategic: What are we measuring and why? How do these metrics fit into our overall business plan? What’s the connection between these numbers and our success – or survival? What’s our confidence in the validity of the metrics? Do we review their effectiveness? Could they overtake our own critical thinking skills, news judgment and journalism values? If the answer to the last question is “no,” how does the team know it? (Unacceptable answer: They should just assume it. You need to allay the fear that metrics can murder ethics. Make values a key part of your communications.)

Craft: How do we achieve both quality and popularity? When a story soars, do we know why? Can we deconstruct the success and not just assume the topic was destined to succeed? In what ways did it reach people? With what support? On what platforms? When a worthy piece fails to thrive, do we have a process by which we figure out why it didn’t draw eyeballs? When managers can provide these answers, they’re teaching staff that craft excellence is no longer solely about creating a quality product. Now it involves imagining the many ways a user might experience it – and automatically baking that into the production process. That awareness and skill is everyone’s job.

Personal: How does each member of your team react to feedback? Who’s resilient in the face of criticism and who’s fragile? Who needs support? (“We would do that story again in a heartbeat. No matter the metrics, it’s important. We’ll keep figuring out how to get the audience to pay attention!”) Who needs a straightforward reality check? (“You’re hurting your own stories by ignoring social media. Look at these traffic patterns.”) Who needs encouragement? (“Those photos you posted right away from the scene gave us the edge. Keep it up!”) If you’re not inclined to do this with your team, remember: someone else is. And it may well be someone who’s giving them advice you wouldn’t agree with. You manage the impact of metrics with both your head and your heart.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Liz: What about the issue of how much information is the right amount of information for a manager to hand out? Should everyone who wants it be given a password to the entire vault of analytics, enabling them to see how they’re doing, or how their colleagues are doing? It’s tricky to figure out what serves a healthy purpose and what takes it too far.

Jill: I’m a big believer in sharing as much information as possible – with this caveat: tie access to training. When people learn how to interpret data and how the organization applies it, there’s less chance they’ll misunderstand or misuse it. Analytics in the wrong hands can be as powerful as live ammunition, so I recommend a “safety course” for all who have access. Do this right and you can build a culture of smart journalists who are informed, but not enslaved by metrics.

Liz: Any suggestions for the writers or editors receiving bad news? How do you calibrate it into you work, and extract useful context from the boss?

Jill: Ask yourself and others, “What could I do differently next time?” Don’t assume you know the reason your work didn’t get traction. Be open to learning things you’ve been avoiding because they seem more “business” or “marketing” than “news.” Think of it this way: Whether you’re a manager or a front line staffer, you owe it to good journalism to learn how to make it accessible and engaging to audiences.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jill Geisler coaches managers worldwide. She holds the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. She’s the author of the book, Work Happy: What Great Bosses Know, and the “Q&A: Leadership and Integrity in the Digital Age” podcasts on iTunes U.