Consumers are generally aware that their web interactions are tracked, and their interests and demographics are calculated. It’s time for editors and writers used that information to improve their reporting for their readers and audiences.
The role of journalism is has always been to inform people about what they need to know. For much of the profession’s history, this has been executed as what we think they need to know. The Internet has shifted that dynamic, as tracking and user profiling has become refined to the point of individuality.
Publications now need to justify their content — and their own existence — to their readers. I argue that readers no longer care about or respect the ‘division between church and state’ that previously divided the editorial and business side of a publication’s operations. Most readers don’t really care about how the media product is created.
Consider a fast-food restaurant: I highly doubt that most customers at McDonalds care about the labor division and food-preparation departments at the restaurant. As far as the customer is concerned, McDonalds is the name of a black box: an order is placed into the box, and the corresponding food items are delivered out of it. What happens inside the box is not the concern or consideration of the consumer.
Most media consumers do not care about a division between a publication’s editorial and business teams. They might say it’s a nice thing to have when told it’s to prevent ownership concerns from interfering with fair, impartial coverage, but I’m going to guess that most already believe that news sources are biased towards their owners anyway.
And if these consumers know about web analytics and demographic targeting (and a fair number do), then as far as they’re concerned, the publication already knows about them. Consumers don’t care that the data might only be held by the business and advertising departments, and editorial staff might not have access to demographic data about their online readers.
To the average reader, there’s no differentiation between The New York Times’ editorial staff, opinion staff, and business staff: it’s all The New York Times.
Given that this is how people are used to interacting with corporations and businesses, it makes no sense for editors and writers for a news publication to be kept in the dark about their online readers’ demographics.
The concern may be that having analytics and traffic data might start a war-for-the-most-clicks, without regard or consideration of an article’s depth of reporting — a fight between quantity and quality. This is a valid consideration. An ill-thought and misguided implementation of web analytics information into a community of editors and writers may lead to them believing that the numbers are the key to success. They’re not.
But taking advantage of analytics information about readers does not necessarily have to lead to an arms race for traffic numbers and a slippery-slope degradation into clickbait journalism, in the same way that newspaper editors knowing about circulation numbers didn’t always lead to sensationalist reporting.
Analytics information can serve as an additional and previously unavailable source to make decisions about coverage and editorial angles. Editors can improve stories to specifically target their reader’s actual interests and needs, rather than their own perception and assumptions about them.
Doing this means a new balance that must be found. Any publication that successfully pulls up the integration of analytics into the newsroom needs a team of editors who understand data and what it says, and can navigate through the chasm of potential problems to bring out the best of web analytics, while avoiding the pitfalls of quantity-over-quality writing.