The New York Times’ investigation into the dangers and abuses nail parlor workers are subjected to just led to Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordering inspections and, where necessary, closure of offending salons. That is media impact: improving people’s lives. Media impact is not what we measure now: pageviews, unique users, likes, shares, and all that. In the latest (and next-to-last) free chapter of Geeks Bearing Gifts, I offer my view of the metrics we should be using. Here’s a snippet; read the rest here. (And here’s a related post I wrote after the book about internally vs. externally focused journalism.)
There is a richer set of metrics that matter to the mission of journalism — metrics around impact and accomplishment. These metrics must start not with us but with the people we serve. They must measure whether they meet their needs and accomplish their goals. Thus journalism built around impact doesn’t start with producing media’s content; it starts with listening to the public’s wants, needs, and goals so we can measure our success ultimately against whether those goals are achieved. (Therein lies the heart of our rationale for starting a new degree at CUNY in social journalism, a journalism built first on listening to and understanding and then serving a community; more on that in the afterword.)
Impact is terribly difficult to measure. It cannot easily be reduced to a number in a chart. But that is precisely why we should pursue these measures, because they force us to see people as individuals again; they force us to listen. Columbia University scholar James Carey argued that media were corrupted by the desire to reduce people to mere numbers — pro vs. anti, red vs. blue — as exemplified by the public-opinion poll. Polling, he said, “was an attempt to simulate public opinion in order to prevent an authentic public opinion from forming.” His alternative: conversation with the public. “I believe we must begin with the primacy of conversation,” Carey wrote. “It implies social arrangements less hierarchical and more egalitarian than its alternatives.” Yes, we have conversations online now, plenty of conversation in bottomless comments sections under our articles. But those comments are still mediacentric, reacting to the content we produce. No, the proper conversation journalists should have must start with the public. These conversations must start not with us speaking but with us listening. Thus I come to better understand my friend Jay Rosen’s interpretation of Carey’s admonitions to journalists: “The press does not ‘inform’ the public,” Rosen said. “It is ‘the public’ that ought to inform the press. The true subject matter of journalism is the conversation the public is having with itself.”
Now I return to amend the relationship metrics I proposed above: How many people have we met — where possible, face-to-face? How rich and informative were our conversations with them? How well do we understand them and their communities? How well have we heard or discerned their needs and goals? That is the starting point.
Only then, only when we have listened well, can we ask the next questions: What does an individual or a community need to accomplish its goals? How can we help? Is it information you need? How can we help you share what you already know? If what you need is not known, then how can we bring reporting to the task? Is it understanding you need? Then how can we bring explanation and context or education? Is it functionality you need? Do we have the skills to implement or build that? Is it organization you need? Can we help convene a community to deliberate and accomplish its goals?
Only after we have contributed to a community’s efforts to reach its own goals can we begin to think of measuring success — that is, impact….
If you can’t wait for the rest of the book, then you can buy it here.