More importantly, metrics are also ubiquitous in web newsrooms. As I have described elsewhere, traffic numbers became central actors in the daily functioning of most newsrooms. Today’s editors and staff writers cannot escape the pressure of web analytics. They follow the online popularity of their articles in real-time, allocate the placement of articles on the homepage depending on their click-through rates, conduct A/B testing to decide which headlines are the most popular, receive detailed optimization recommendations about how to promote their pieces, and are increasingly compensated based on the traffic they attract to the sites.
After more than 400 hours of observation spent in the editorial departments of six online publications, as well as a hundred interviews with writers and editors, here is what I learned: Real-time analytics have become central in the daily routines of all media sites. Editors check traffic numbers in real-time to manage the location of articles on the homepage and make headlines more appealing. Editors often describe themselves as “Chartbeat addicts.” At many websites, writers are directly encouraged to think about traffic. Editors and data specialists send rankings based on traffic numbers to staff writers on a regular basis. Web metrics are often used as a management tool. This is sometimes a conscious decision, for example when websites rely on traffic-based financial incentives. In other cases it is less direct, but editors explain that they take metrics seriously when deciding on promotion and compensation. There is often a gap between what journalist say about metrics and what they do. Many writers express cynical views about traffic and say that they do not care about page views. Yet they almost always check whether they are in the “top ten” most read articles list. Journalists react in different ways to traffic numbers depending on the context. In some organizations, writers consider traffic a game at which they want to excel. At other sites, writers feel pressured by their editors to maximize traffic but find strategies to resist. One example: writing a clickbait piece every five articles to “reset the scale” in terms of traffic. Several factors explain why journalists react differently to web metrics, including the size and age of the website, its financial situation, its editorial line, the age of the staffers, their career background (print or web), the management style of the organization, and the country in which this takes place.