Miley Cyrus gave us so much that night. Just trying to count her blessings smacks of ingratitude, like regifting manna.
But two months later, as we attempt reentry into our dreary little lives, it’s worth remembering two articles that followed her star-turn at the Video Music Awards. In a merciless editorial, The Onion mocked journalists for publishing so much “stupid bullshit” about the pop star. A few days later, New York magazine found that Americans were 12 times more interested in Cyrus than in whatever was happening in Syria.
Together, these two pieces frame the plight of the media, circa 2013: Sites that sell advertising have a strong incentive to crank out the editorial equivalent of empty calories. It's probably only a slight exaggeration to say that on the morning after Cyrus’s performance, any story that wasn't about twerking was leaving money on the table.
Tony Haile, the CEO of a New York company called Chartbeat, didn’t create this perverse incentive structure, but he has almost certainly made it worse. Chartbeat enables websites to see how many concurrent visitors they have at a given moment and shows, in real-time, which articles are most popular. This instant feedback can help sites maximize their traffic through tactics like story placement and social media.
The media is addicted. Since Chartbeat launched in 2009, the company says its client list has grown to include 40 of the top 50 U.S. publishers by traffic. The New York Times, ESPN, CNN and, yes, Salon all subscribe.
In 2011, editors in major newsrooms went into “withdrawal” during a Chartbeat outage. Since then the company appears to have tightened its grip. When I visited the company’s New York office recently, monitors indicated that around 7.6 million “heartbeats,” -- people -- were tuned into pages monitored by Chartbeat. That number first topped 3 million in early 2011; the all-time peak of more than 9.8 million came on the last day of the Boston bombing manhunt.
“It's been the feeling that following metrics too closely is corruptive to good quality journalism,” Haile said. “I think if you're following the wrong metrics that's true.”
This sounds a bit rich, given the nature of his business. But as Haile presents it, Chartbeat wants to change the data editors and, more importantly, advertisers care about. He thinks this could improve journalism's quality by reducing the incentive to write click-bait headlines, produce unnecessary slideshows, pointlessly paginate articles and indulge in other chicanery to inflate page views.
Raising page views for its own sake, “Doesn't help the audience,” Haile said. “The advertiser doesn't get anything more from it. It's just a way of gaming the numbers.”
“If [a headline reads] 'Prince William caught in love triangle,' it doesn't matter what the story says,” Haile said. “I've got that click, I've got that page view. So it lends itself to lower quality.” But in a media climate where every post is judged on its own terms — whether it’s a war zone dispatch or a curated list of tweets about “Mad Men” – how can quality be measured?
Haile thinks the crucial metric should be time, how long a page captures readers' attention. He believes that articles that engage readers, and are therefore more likely to create a loyal audience, should be worth more to advertisers. That might sound simple, but almost two decades into the era of online media, the industry hasn’t been able to make that happen.
Chartbeat looks well positioned to prove its hypothesis. The company says it has more than 4,000 paying clients worldwide. Its basic service starts at $10 per month, but rates escalate for organizations with more users or that need more in-depth data. In 2012 the company raised $9.5 million in venture capital led by the big-time Silicon Valley firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson.
England-born Haile, like many tech executives, cultivates a swashbuckling image. One of his bios says he has “been to the North Pole, negotiated with vodka-fuelled helicopter pilots in Siberia, built a runway in Greenland, smuggled explosives through Heathrow and meat into Canada.” Can he add “saved journalism” to that list?
Before the Internet, newspaper editors learned almost nothing about how many people read a story or clipped it to the refrigerator. Then, in an earlier era of the Internet, online editors might have learned a story’s traffic days or weeks after it ran. Now, Chartbeat tells editors how well a story is doing immediately. Boxes, each representing a story, constantly, silently reorder themselves on the screen. Chartbeat has a Tetris-like ability to invade dreams.
Part of being an editor has become acquiring a feel for what kind of stories traffic well. It’s an intuition game, a bit like stock picking but with no chance of getting rich.
I asked Haile what kind of high-quality stories he thinks attract strong traffic. “Dude,” he responded, “That's a broad church question.” Translated from the English, that means he doesn’t know any better than the rest of us.
But some people do know. In an interview with Betabeat last year, Jonah Peretti, CEO of Buzzfeed and the industry’s reigning traffic king, commented on material that goes viral [sic, in advance]: “There’s humor, there’s timeliness and breaking news and things like that, there’s broadly defined things that have that make you exp a sense of awe or emotion and you see often nostalgic posts like do v well. So we’ll do posts about you know, food you ate as a kid that you can’t get anymore and have like, Jell-O pudding pops that aren’t on the market.” Peretti could have added that numbered lists trigger a neurological urge that evolution did not equip us to resist, like Cheez-Its or pornography.
In a newspaper, a popular advice columnist might appear on a page facing a piece on a zoning meeting. The reader might only read the advice column but she understands them as part of the same product. And, just by filling blank space, the zoning story served a purpose even if no one read it.
Online, a story’s traffic, its purpose, depends largely on its individual ability to attract readers. In effect each story becomes its own product, advertised by media companies on Facebook and Twitter. This dynamic reduces the incentive to cover that proverbial zoning meeting when a post on, say, a celebrity will almost certainly attract more clicks.
The original reporting and name-brand analysis that might be called prestige content will still have a place in many business models, especially at the biggest and wealthiest media outlets. But endless media layoffs around the country suggest that a lot more zoning meetings are going uncovered.
Even so, plenty of solid journalism still does strong traffic. In an extreme example, Mother Jones upended the 2012 election with its 47% coverage and the original piece accumulated 185,000 likes on Facebook. (For my purposes, Facebook and Twitter activity, which many sites display publicly, are reasonable proxies for traffic.)
But Haile said he’s seeing journalists, under pressure to generate traffic, splitting their time between prestige work and filler like “five reasons why Anthony Weiner should have been mayor or something like that, a guaranteed click-bait kind of thing.” The publications employing journalists also have to strike a balance between creating the content that will drive traffic today and what will develop and maintain an audience in the long term. Too much of the former can dilute a brand while an excess of the latter can cause advertising revenue to suffer.
Even Buzzfeed, the list-happy site which has seen astonishing traffic growth, confronts the prestige gap. After Election Day, site staffer McKay Coppins published a well-received essay about his experience covering the campaign as a Mormon. It received 1,700 Facebook likes, respectable for a long, thoughtful piece but that’s not what’s keeping the lights on at Buzzfeed where a post called “26 moments that restored our faith in humanity this year” has racked up 1.7 million likes (plus 555,000 Facebook “shares”.) No, I won’t link to it.
This is where Chartbeat could matter. Haile thinks his service can reconcile, or at least narrow, the prestige gap by generating meaningful data about which pieces engage readers. When people read sites, Haile said, they make small detectable actions: scrolling, mouse movements and the like. Using information like this, Chartbeat says it can determine how long readers stay before moving on and it believes advertisers will want space next to the most compelling work. (Engagement information is already available to Chartbeat clients.)
To illustrate, Haile sent me data pulled from 50 million “user sessions” of which words in a headline are likely to keep people’s attention after they have already clicked on the story. Headline words like top, best, companies, cities, cars, biggest and richest didn’t drive engagement. Readers, however, bothered to read stories with the following words in the headline: Obama, Obamacare, D.C., Zimmerman, Snowden, Trayvon, War, Egypt, Syria, GOP, Walmart. (This list seems tailored to flatter a Salon editor.)
The question is whether advertisers can be made to care about engagement. In a given month, Chartbeat provides a constant stream of data, “for front-line doers,” those workers in a position to boost traffic minute to minute.
Advertisers, however, don’t want to be overwhelmed with a month of real-time data. Instead, they depend on metrics like one commonly known as a comScore, for the company that calculates it. ComScore can reduce a month’s traffic to a single figure, i.e. 10,000,000. It serves roughly the same purpose as a TV show’s Nielsen rating.
If a site sees its Chartbeat performance rise over a month, that’s likely to boost its comScore number, but the two have no direct connection. ComScore collects its own data on page views and unique visitors and then performs its own calculations. (For a more in-depth explanation see here.) Advertising sales teams can talk up how rich their audiences are or how attractively demogrified, but it’s the comScore number that brings home the bacon.
Earlier this year, Chartbeat introduced a new service, for advertising salespeople instead of editors, that is designed to make reader engagement something advertisers will pay for. Chartbeat says it has signed up 27 major publishers as clients for the service, which starts at $2,000 per month.
As Haile sees it, page views won’t stop mattering, but they could matter in different ways. For example, if a site gets page views and then can convince advertisers that their audience actually reads the articles they click on, ads placed farther down the page could become more desirable (and expensive) because that’s where the people who are paying attention hang out.
Measuring engagement could also open opportunities for “brand advertising.” That's the industry term for the high-profile outlays designed less to sell products immediately than to implant ideas like "BMW is a really beautiful, sexy machine and are you the kind of person who wants to be in that kind of car," as Trei Brundrett, chief product officer of Vox Media put it.
Vox Media which publishes the tech site The Verge and the sports site SB Nation, is using Chartbeat’s new service for advertising sales. And the results? "The simplicity of what they're trying to convey” in engagement time “is powerful," Brundrett said though “The jury's still out on how advertisers will receive it."
The beauty of the situation, for Chartbeat, is that real-time data is now so essential in newsrooms that websites will still be mainlining it, whether or not it meaningfully changes their business. Chartbeat has become like the boomtown general store where all the miners stock up (and then refuel) as they try to strike it rich. And while "How real-time data saved journalism" would make for a nice TED Talk, Chartbeat’s investors undoubtedly know they can cash out and then see if Haile's thesis holds up.
Why can't journalism come up with a business model that makes so much sense?