Number of clicks. Number of comments. Number of shares on social media. Number of seconds (hopefully minutes) spent on the article. It’s all being tracked.
In this digital age where every click or tap is recorded, publishers and editorial staff can easily see what the most trending topic is and/or what article is performing the best. But what are websites doing with all this data?
Dao Nguyen, Buzzfeed’s publisher, told Fast Company that these metrics don’t tell the whole story.
“One myth is data scientists are telling reporters what to write and what to cover,” Nguyen said. “That’s totally untrue. I take no responsibility for what these insane reporters cover. They just come up with all that themselves.”
She later brings up wild ideas such as, “These Are 27 Sandwiches That Are Better Than a Boyfriend.” Nguyen says creativity takes the driver seat, not “deep data science behind sandwiches, and sandwiches and boyfriends.”
The key thing to understanding data is that it only keeps track of what happened, not why it happened, Nguyen said. As a journalist, you should be able to realize why an article did well. Is it a current trending topic? Did it involve a lot of emotion that resonated with people?
One place where feedback (putting in nicely) is immediately found — the comment section. Nguyen says the comment section is “often a very good barometer” for determining reader opinions and engaging community.
Nilay Patel, editor-in-chief of The Verge agrees with Nguyen.
“Comments and community are foundational for the company,” Patel told Nieman Lab. “We’re trying to reset the expectations of our community and rethink how we maintain what’s strong about one set of people that are reading one kind of content as our site grows and as our ambitions grow for the site.”
Unlike Buzzfeed and The Verge, some outlets don’t feel the same. According to Nieman Lab, in 2015, seven outlets experimented with removing the comment section entirely.
As one of the seven, Reuters removed the comment section on its entire article except opinion pieces.
“[Commenting] wasn’t a main lever of engagement for us, quite frankly,” Dan Colarusso, executive editor of Reuters.com, told Nieman Lab. “We didn’t feel as if there was a lot going on there, anyway; it hadn’t become as fertile and diverse as our audience was.”
Interestingly, some outlets believe better discussion is made through social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. This is actually quite clever. Because many comment sections are anonymous, people are willing to speak their mind. Not only that, but all the conversation stays on the specific website. Using social media as a sort of comment section, articles could be better circulated and reach people who may of not seen the article otherwise.
All things considered, I find it refreshing that outlets — even clickbait sites like Buzzfeed — aren’t letting data or comment sections take charge of future content. It just goes to show that no amount of data can replace the creative mind of a journalist.