How the page view will help save journalism

The page view feels like it has been under attack for years, getting the blame for pretty much, well, everything wrong with journalism.

In digital journalism circles, the argument went that there had to be better metrics to look at when determining what ‘good’ journalism looked like. Time spent, active time spent, pages per visit, local audience visitor numbers, subscriber numbers, return visits, brand traffic … the list goes on.

In wider journalism circles – and especially here in the UK – the page view was (and still is) lamented too often as causing ‘click chasing’ and a general dilution in quality local journalism. I looked at this in my last post on here – if we’re honest, the problem with quality of local journalism has nothing to do with looking at page views, it’s to do with what the page views tell you.

Yet for all the tutting and criticism thrown the way of the page view, here we are in 2019 with the page view as still a primary metric in any newsroom which takes digital content even slightly seriously. Why?

Probably for two reasons. The first is simply this:

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Page views generate revenue, which funds journalism, which in turn enables us to generate page views. The fact our industry didn’t pick up on this until long after others were ‘eating our lunch’ should always be remembered when the next big change comes along.

The second reason the page view has continued to dominate is because we’ve realised there is no perfect single metric which tells you everything you need to know. Digital metrics are lightyears ahead of the ones at the disposal of newspaper sales executives, but I’d argue newspaper sales executives wouldn’t have spent half as long trying to create perfect digital news metric as the digital news industry did. Ask yourself ‘What do I need to know’ and then ‘What can I realistically find out?”

In the absence of unicorn metrics which tell us if something is good journalism, the page view lives on. But increasingly, not on its own.

What we want from readers tells us what we need from metrics

We need people to want our content – and to become loyal to it. Newsrooms which allow their content decisions to be influenced by a platform will always be at risk of a nasty shock when that platform changes tack.

At this point, you go in two directions. There’s content which people want, and there’s content we need them to want. It’s  the difference between searching for content and trusting a brand to tell you what you need to know.

The page view metric is often accused of making newsrooms indulge in content described as ‘lightweight’, ‘pointless,’ ‘not news’ or ‘clickbait.’ Local newsrooms often hear this, even if it remains very rare to see any content produced by a local newsroom that wouldn’t have found a home in a 1990s evening newspaper. If anything, the page view metric teaches us that the stuff newsrooms didn’t consider part of what sold the newspaper – weather, TV listings, adverts even – was probably more important to the reader than we ever gave them credit for.

There’s a very real risk that used in isolation, the page view can lead to the wrong decisions being made.  At this point, the ‘couldn’t get the clicks’ choir often strike up. But our challenge is simple: Make people want the content we think they need.

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The orange line starts with readers seeking what they want. That could be a restaurant review, traffic and travel information or even a story about Gregg’s shared by a friend. They generate the page view, which triggers the revenue, which funds the journalism, and hopefully the loop continues. Note: If a story is clickbait, this line breaks quickly, which is why ‘clickbait’ so often means ‘I’m not interested in that, I’m not going to read it, but I will make a noise about it, because I can.’

At the very least, this orange line is supporting the creation of this content. Done at scale, it can also support the creation of content which journalists would say readers need – but don’t necessarily know they need.

That’s where the blue line begins. We as journalists need to convince people they need these stories. We do that in many ways, including engaging with people, and by learning the lessons of successful ‘want’ content. Get that right and hopefully the the reader’s ‘need’ as we see it becomes the reader’s ‘want’ content in the future.

And, of course, the two sets of content – want content and need content – won’t be read by two exclusive sets of readers, which is why both the orange line and the blue have a link from the bottom row of circles into engagement. The more you engage readers, the more they’ll surely want to spend time with you, the more they’ll generate more page views. And want content and need content begin to merge in the mind of a reader who becomes loyal.

That’s why I think the page view has stood the test of time, and survived being accused of responsibility for so many of journalism’s ills. It’s the start of the story of your newsroom’s success (or otherwise), not the whole story.

Emily Bell’s Tricky podcast had Chris Moran from the Guardian on as guest the other week. The discussion about the page view as a metric is refreshing, but not niave. In other words, the page view is valuable, but it’s what you do with it which determines its impact on journalism

As Steve Dyson noted in his column on Holdthefrontpage this week, it was also possible to obsess too much about newspaper sales, and allow one metric (the sales figure) to distort thoughts on what to put on the front page.

Online, this makes the second tier of metrics critical – the ones which take you beyond quantity towards metrics which give a sense of quality for the reader (although, again, that runs the risk of being over-inferred too).

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Unless you have a paywall model or donation system (and it was fascinating to see the Guardian editor Kath Viner wreck the old myth that scale can’t correlate to engagement and therefore to revenue this week) the metrics you probably need to be looking at are the active time spent per page, the page views in visit (also known as recirculation in many newsrooms) and whether a loyal reader generated the page view.

We don’t live in a world where it’s chasing page views vs creating journalism. We’re in a world where page views tell us whether we’re succeeding in getting people to look at our journalism, and whether our journalism is appealing to people, or whether we need to find a way to make it appeal to them.

The page view isn’t the problem. It’s what you do with the data…

 

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