I spoke with a reporter last week about an event I was planning. My institution’s public relations director had contacted the reporter to see if the newspaper would be interested in writing an article covering the event. In the interview, the reporter asked directly “Is this something that would make our readers click?” Obviously, the reporter was talking about clicking on a link for the article on the newspaper’s website. While I think the reporter was trying to gauge the larger interest for the event, he also communicated something else. Data matter. In the newspaper world, it’s no longer about subscriptions. It’s clicks. When readers visit the newspaper’s website, they click to get access to an article. But the click isn’t just an access point. It’s a piece of data. It shows how many people have engaged with the article, which is important for selling advertising space. If an article can generate many clicks, the newspaper will presumably benefit from an uptick in advertising revenue. The newspaper can show exactly how many people have engaged with the article and can use those numbers when talking to advertisers. That’s the power of clicks as data.
But there’s also a negative to clicking. Although the event was a novel collaboration across many institutions of higher education in our area, the article never appeared in print or online. The reporter obviously decided that there wasn’t enough clickable interest in the event and he needed to focus his attention elsewhere. In the interview a week earlier, I asked the reporter whether clicking influenced which stories the newspaper ran. “Penn State stories generate a lot of interest. We broke a click count record recently with an article about Joe Paterno.” It shouldn’t be too surprising that the paper’s website features a drop down for Penn State. Helps to generate more clicks.
That’s what I really worry about. Since we have the ability to measure something, then it becomes important. We don’t really question what the data say or how the data can be misused. The newspaper is guided by clicks so it runs more articles like the stories that have generated clicks in the past. With this logic, we should all expect more controversial stories about fallen athletic coaches in our local newspapers. We should also expect to see fewer feel good stories about local educational efforts.
Data are everywhere though and media outlets aren’t the only ones being misguided by data. Look at our public schools. Sometime in the last decade or two, bureaucrats decided that scores on state assessment were the most important pieces of data. School years were organized around the assessments and entire subjects were dropped so that students could focus more time and attention on the assessable content. Just like a newspaper solely focusing on articles that can generate clicks, schools have limited their focus to the content that is being assessed. The trouble with data is that it can narrow our lens so we’re only paying attention to what we can measure. It’s not good for our newspapers. Or for our schools.