Are audience metrics shaping the future of journalism?

By Rayana Zapryanova

Metrics are part of a broader business strategy of media organisations to better connect with the audience. However, according to Sophie Chauvet, this shouldn’t be the only focus – numbers are here to help these organisations, not to rule them. 

Metrics can be unreliable, and they shouldn’t be the basis of whether someone should be hired, and they don’t determine if someone is working well or not. This can be a bit unfair because numbers don’t always tell the reality. 

An example of this would be the 2016 scandal of Facebook admitting that the video metrics they provided were significantly inflated, which in turn harmed newsrooms that pivoted to video after Facebook’s first announcement.

Sophie Chauvet’s research dives into the world of metrics and tries to determine the main actors in this world – media outlets, advertisers, platforms such as Google and Facebook, analytics companies and so on. Her goal is to create a map that shows how these actors interact, how that translates in metrics and how it impacts public debates. 

Throughout her investigation, she has attended some events to see who is there, who is talking. She has been gathering written online material. She has been doing interviews with these actors to see what is going on in their minds – what do they want, what are they trying to sell

Sophie found out there are plenty of actors involved in this world of metrics. “That’s why it’s so interesting,” she said, “because it’s quite opaque. It changes often. Yet there’s a lot of money going into this, and it could have a lot of impact, but we don’t know how it works. And there’s probably some things that are going wrong with it.”

Once having seen that, she kept investigating – she’s seeing who interacts with who, who dominates this world of metrics, and according to what rules precisely. 

She’s noticed that the map or the way the actors interact is nothing new – it stems from the long history of choices and decisions made by actors in advertising and digital media agencies. 

There are many aspects of her research that the media industry would be interested in knowing, said Sophie. Chief among them would be understanding more about who is behind the analytics that influences them so much, hopefully how to find a better way to use these audience metrics – a way that doesn’t impact negatively on their decision making in the allocation of financial resources. 

Other interested parties would-be advertisers and regulators – mainly actors who want to understand how the ecosystem works. “There are not a lot of people that understand [how it works],” said Sophie. “And if it’s too opaque, then there’s a lot of risk for fraud and misbehaviours.”

The public could also be interested in her research findings because they must understand where exactly their data goes. “We’ve been talking a lot about privacy and how their public data isn’t well protected,” the researcher said. “This research really shows who is dealing with these things.” 

Sophie is in the process of producing a podcast with Pat O’Mahony, where she talks about some of her most recent findings, unveils the components that form the ecosystem of audience metrics, and sheds light on the black box that is data collection. 

She is also doing her online secondment with the University of Amsterdam, and she is currently still collaborating with her host institution,

See related article: Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s got the highest metrics of all?

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This project is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska Curie grant agreement No 765140