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Newsroom analytics "exert a powerful influence" over how journalists feel about themselves and their work, according to a new Tow Center report.

In 'The Traffic Factories', published yesterday, Tow research fellow Caitlin Petre examines how metrics are used at The New York Times, Gawker Media and Chartbeat.

The report highlighted some interesting insights into the effect analytics can have on journalists, newsrooms and publications.

Metrics can deeply affect journalists' morale

Analytics dashboards have "important emotional dimensions that are too often overlooked," states Petre.

This is perhaps especially noticeable when such dashboards are often placed prominently in the newsroom for all to see.

The idea, of course, is not to chastise journalists on the basis of page views – or any other metric, for that matter.

But a spike in shares, for example, can trigger feelings of triumph for most journalists, while less impressive stats can make people feel anxious and lacking in motivation.

Chartbeat designed its analytics dashboard to "cushion the blow of low traffic," notes the report.

Other features which defer to "journalistic judgement" ensure metrics are not the only method for journalists to measure the success of stories, which is likely to lead to more well-rounded decision-making and a more engaged newsroom, Petre writes.

News outlets should consider the 'big picture'

Busy journalists are more likely to check analytics in an ad hoc fashion than give them much deep or strategic thought.

However, this can lead to metrics being misinterpreted and, if they are not as good as expected, potentially demoralising editorial staff.

"This data is simply too powerful to implement on the fly," states Petre.

Instead, she believes outlets must "create opportunities – whether internally or by partnering with outside researchers – for reflective, deliberate thinking removed from daily production pressures about how best to use analytics."

The impact of analytics depends on the newsroom

The idea that introducing analytics will automatically change the culture and operational structure of the newsroom is a myth, according to Petre.

At Gawker, metrics are "highly visible and influential", for example, while at The New York Times, analytics are more peripheral and used "primarily to corroborate decisions editors had already made".

This differentiation in use-cases means it would be almost impossible to measure the general impact of analytics on journalism without looking at how newsrooms use them on an individual basis.

Not all metrics are created equal

While audience analytics such as visits, shares and attention time are "important and worthwhile," states the report, other more qualitative metrics – such as an outlet's ethics or community value, are more difficult to map. 

"At a time when data analytics are increasingly valorized, we must take care not to equate what is quantifiable with what is valuable," Petre concludes.

To read the report in full visit towcenter.org.

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