Should Journalists Know How Many People Read Their Stories?

The New York Times and Washington Post will soon make web-traffic data available to their own reporters.

Soon, reporters at two of the country’s leading newspapers will have access to the most basic type of digital analytics: They will be able to see web-traffic data for their own stories. That is, they will at least know how many people clicked on them, where they came from, and how long they lingered.

On Thursday, The Washington Post—in a concession to its reporters’ union—told journalists they would soon have access to this data, which they had long demanded. On Friday, it emerged that The New York Times would follow suit. Both announcements were first reported by the Washingtonian.

There is an element of kabuki involved in these announcements. In the memo announcing the change, Times executive editor Dean Baquet and editorial-page editor Andrew Rosenthal stress that “There will be no traffic goals for desks or writers.” Baquet and Rosenthal’s memo alludes to the many constituencies in the Times newsroom: “Some editors and reporters are already deeply interested in this information, while many others regard it as an additional burden in an already packed day,” they write. And they say that traffic data is only being revealed to writers now because the paper at last built it into tools that will make it relevant for reporters and writers.

Years ago, “do you give your reporters access to traffic data?” was a sort of stand-in question for larger philosophical debates in journalism. Some of these have now been resolved, questions like: Do you pay your writers just based on traffic? (Most don’t, though a writer’s popularity is probably one thing you consider in their compensation.) Is traffic the only value that matters to online writing? (No, obviously not, but also it sounds like your real complaint is with capitalism, bub.) Now, most publications make data available to writers. The Atlantic certainly does. In fact, the Times and Post may be some of the final major national publications that have denied traffic data to their employees.

And so today’s news is a good thing. Much as making a company “flat” or manager-free actually just enacts management-by-the-most-passive-aggressive, hiding traffic data from reporters forces them to rely on more oblique signals. If an editor praises a story you thought was mediocre, did they do it because the writing or reporting was actually good—or because it just did really well on Facebook?

Writers want to know what people read. If they don’t have access to direct feedback, they have feel this out indirectly: by squinting at social-media share counts, looking at their Twitter mentions, or by talking to their friends. (This last method may be the worst: It reinforces an already-nasty feedback loop where reporters write mostly for the type of people they’re friends with. (For more on this feedback loop, cf. the Times’s regular Op-Ed columnists.)

Digital journalism relies on a kind of cyborg instinct. Good web writers blend lots of variables together when choosing whether to write a story, including a knowledge of what did well in the past, what they’re interested in, what they think others will be interested in, what good they think a post will do. Journalists can develop that instinct best with good data. And, like all kinds of data, having more data just reveals its shortcomings: Writers quickly figure out all the intangibles that matter to them (and to readers) but which don’t have a direct effect on a story’s traffic.

The best testament to the dangers of semi-obscuring traffic to writers may be about the Times newsroom. Before the current digital-journalism boom—in the ripe old antediluvian year of 2007—The Onion imagined the consequences that a Times-specific web-traffic surrogate must be having on internal morale: “‘Most E-Mailed’ List Tearing New York Times’ Newsroom Apart,” it said.

Not a single reporter, the story promised, was writing their story with the most-emailed list in mind:

Columnist Nicholas Kristof, a Pulitzer Prize–winning former editor who has covered Asia and Africa for the Times, claimed not to be aware that his work frequently appears on the Most E-Mailed list, saying he “never so much as glances” at it.

“Who cares—lists are stupid and arbitrary,” Kristof said. “Only shallow morons pay attention to them. As if an article is inherently better just because more people happen to read it. This isn't a popularity contest.”

Kristof returned Thursday from the Sudan after a six-week-long investigation of the plight of displaced house cats in the genocide-ridden Darfur region. His findings will be published in next Sunday’s New York Times Magazine.

Of course, any modern data-enabled Internet journalist knows now that cats are a little passé. Today’s version of that story would track the plight of Angora bunnies.