This month’s Carnival of Journalism prompt poses this question: “How do we measure the impact of journalism?”
Before I can answer the question, I see three, no four, terms that must be defined:
What is journalism? What do we mean by journalism? How do we define and classify something as journalism, as opposed to something else?
What is impact? Do we mean some ultimate effect that leads to a change in belief, attitude, behavior? Or is it enough to simply consider an increase in factual knowledge about some event, idea, issue, policy, decision, person or place?
How do we measure? Must we develop a system that quantifies and measures a fixed desired outcome? That’s usually what people mean when that talk about measurement (rulers, counting, etc.). But value can’t always be quantified.
Who is measuring? Shareholders and investors looking for a financial return of X% per year and a growth rate of X% per year? Or is it the journalist who dreamed of uncovering something nefarious that leads to positive change benefiting a local community or society?
What is Journalism?
Are we talking about traditional news organizations that publish print newspapers? Traditional broadcast news organizations that deliver segments of news throughout a 24-hour day? Cable news that delivers a steady stream of “news” and other content constantly, 24/7? Or a new model that is delivered via the internet but aims to provide content that is mostly akin to the traditional print, broadcast and cable TV news organizations? Or are we talking about the new online content that is served up by bloggers who have huge (or niche) audiences that are the primary source of information for many people?
What is Measurable Impact?
Some desirable outcomes can’t easily be quantified and counted in the traditional sense. How do you measure the value of growing up in a home with loving, attentive parents who provide right mix of intellectual stimulation so that a child grows into a love of learning and eventually becomes a scientist who makes major discoveries that leads to development of a key vaccine? Do we measure the value of the product or outcome of the child’s life in terms of lives saved? Royalties earned on the drug patent?
At what point do we measure? Perhaps the early experiments are failures. It takes years of trial and error to reach a result that can then lead to major advances. If measurement occurs at the point of failure, the scientist’s career can end due to lack of future funding.
The same is true of education. Yes, we can measure (to some extent) a student’s information and skills level at one point in time, put the student through a series of learning exercises and then measure the student’s information and skills level thereafter. That will give us quantifiable information. But is it accurate and meaningfully reflective of the value of the educational process? Does it reflect the aggregate impact of education and the knowledge and skills the student acquires (or needs) in areas that aren’t tested?
We really don’t know (or can’t appreciate) the full impact of some activities and initiatives until many years later.
In journalism, this is especially true. An investigative report or in-depth analysis may or may not lead to any immediate discernible change in a political situation, a policy direction or community attitudes. But, over time, it may be a catalyst for change. Ben Franklin’s “United We Stand” cartoon didn’t launch the revolution or spark the Declaration of Independence, but it had an impact. How do you measure that impact? Was “circulation” or “page views” a sufficient measure? I think not.
Who is Measuring?
Are we measuring for profit? Or for impact?
I’m all for profit, mind you, so I’m operating from the premise that the financial side of news must be sustainable in terms of cash flow and profit margins. But even with that premise, there’s a range of options.
Shareholders and investors focus measurement on financial return on investment. For publicly-traded companies and private companies with private equity owners the return is usually measured on a quarterly and annual basis (if not more frequently). Greater profits and higher returns are always viewed as good.
But those short-term gains often come at the expense of longer-term sustained profitability or even viability of the organization. Get rid of the most expensive journalists and, in the short-term, expenses go down and profits may go up. But eventually even the most loyal readers or viewers will notice a decline in quality and turn away.
Family-owned, closely-held news organizations may be more willing to tolerate slightly-lower profits in exchange for intangible impacts or slow but steady profit margins and growth rates.
Editors and reporters may be more interested today in circulation rates, page views and similar click rates. But those don’t measure influence, respect or credibility, especially in the marketplace of ideas.
How do we measure the impact of journalism? I don’t know. It depends on why we’re measuring, what we want to measure, and who we’re measuring for?
Is my response a wiggle? Maybe. But each organization has to decide for itself what it hopes to accomplish through a journalistic endeavor and then decide how to measure success and impact.
Happy Carnival. I look forward to reading the other responses.