Vanity Metrics Turn Breaking News Into A Giant Popularity Contest

Impact of vanity metrics on breaking newsI came across this interesting infographic (below) from BusinessWire this morning.

I’d seen it before, but here’s what struck me about it this time: publications are using vanity metrics to determine if a story is successful or not. It’s a simple metric – easy to track.

What does that actually mean? They like successful stories – who doesn’t – so when something generates a nice amount of comments, likes and shares, they produce more content that is similar to what was successful.

These are vanity metrics, and a great explanation for why breaking news is gradually becoming more about repurposing entertainment currently popular on social media, instead of local news. It’s a place to get instant feedback on vanity metrics – real-time reactions. Stations can see what is already popular and trending on social media, then pop it on the news that same day. It’s proven successful by another publisher, making it an easy win for vanity metrics.

It’s the news equivalent of clickbait. News is being determined by what is already popular (sometimes on a national scale), instead of what is important locally, instead of what drives important, MEANINGFUL change.

The problem is this: people go to Facebook for personal entertainment more than anything else, and that is the primary social media platform monitored for vanity metrics. They don’t necessarily discuss what is difficult, complicated, emotional or messy. They like what is amusing, interesting…. entertaining and a fast escape from their life for just a few moments. A Facebook post becomes popular for completely different reasons than true local news stories might be valuable, plus the audience is diluted from local viewers.

Using vanity metrics to determine what news we see is the equivalent of using a popularity contest in Style magazine to determine news covered in US News & World Report.

Huh.

Is breaking news supposed to be entertaining? Is that what today’s journalism stands for? It is if we focus only on vanity metrics.

What would happen if success of a story for a local news station were measured on local impact? End results, instead of a fleeting moment of attention?

I’m thinking it might do some really interesting things to the types of news considered a priority, wouldn’t it?

According to American Press Institute, “The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments.

Does massive coverage of kangaroos on the loose do this for us? How about the fact that a recent dust storm increases risk of lyme disease – which is a fungus that exists in Arizona dust, therefore completely obvious that inhaling higher volumes of dust increases risk?

What about five minutes or more live streaming coverage of people circling an ice skating rink during a hot summer day… does that help us make decisions on something important? Is that really what makes people want to watch breaking news?

Maybe news should be less about vanity metrics and low-hanging fruit, and more about getting back to its real purpose.

Is it even possible with the direction we are heading for budgets, revenue and newsroom resources?

It sure wouldn’t be easy to measure; it would be incredibly difficult, time-consuming and slow. It would take time and patience that advertisers might not be willing to risk. I feel their pain, but wish… Oh, do I wish.

Rules to Media Relations infographic