Metrics at Work: Journalism and the Contested Meaning of Algorithms
by Angèle Christin
Published June 2020
Princeton University Press
Numbers seem to tell a contained and completed story. But those who read them often disagree about what they mean. Angèle Christin’s book, Metrics at Work: Journalism and the Contested Meaning of Algorithms, upends assumptions about the technicality and banality of metrics. Unboxing the netherworld of numbers, she tackles the question of how people react to digital metrics by comparing how news workers differ in how they interpret the relevance of numbers and how they represent a publication’s success. In New York, the center of news media in the US, editors and journalists consistently use web metrics as a reliable indicator of readership engagement, which stands in for a commodified and fragmented public. Journalists often disavow the numbers as a marketing concern, an indicator that falls outside their autonomous and professional standards and judgments; editors, on the other hand, pay more attention to metrics, viewing them as an objective indicator that signifies relevance and economic viability.
In Paris, though, the role of metrics is not settled as smoothly. Web analytics function there as a contradictory object: simultaneously representing shallow, commercial transactions and a deep engagement with civil society and a unitary public. Thus, French journalists become fixated on ‘chasing clicks,’ with ‘clicks’ functioning as a symbol of their relevance in the public sphere, particularly given the historical importance of the civic role of their profession. French editors use metrics as a guiding pulse but, unlike in America, not as a clear criterion for making editorial decisions. They feel a greater responsibility to produce ‘important’ content defined independently of user traffic.
Christin’s book opens with tangible scenes. The bustling streets of Paris and New York, the locations of her two case studies, contrast with the monotone, sleek, and angular interiors of LaPlace and The Notebook, pseudonyms for the two news organizations at the center of her four-year ethnography. Rich detail drawn from Christin’s research animates the journalists, editors, and organizations transformed by big data, algorithms, digital technologies, and the start-up economy.
People normally think of numbers, notifications, and algorithms – or ‘metrics’ – as functioning in a netherworld of digital space, detached from local surroundings and transmitted through glowing screens and pinging apps. Such metrics often recede into the ‘background noise’ of daily life and routines, able to be shut off and shut out with the press of a button or the dimming of a screen. As quantified representations, metrics often appear impersonal, mechanical, and distant from the self, something humans can manipulate, know, control, and increase or decrease at will.
By grounding her research in concrete changes that have occurred since the widespread adoption of digital metrics in newsrooms – from the meaning of journalistic success to the aesthetics of web pages and the arrangement of cubicles – Christin’s book probes the intersection of technology and practice. New digital technologies shape how journalists perform their work. Journalists, however, also determine how those technologies gain their relevance and significance. Far from being contained within a 5.8-inch-diagonal rectangle with an off switch, metrics intimately impact the texture of our communities, occupations, interactions, and identities.
As social life becomes increasingly mediated by digital tools, it is ever more imperative to understand how people incorporate technology into their routines, as well as how technologies spark new forms of engagement, identity, and interaction. Christin’s work lays a path for analyzing the ways in which metrics change the organization and meaning of a professional field, as well as how metrics are incorporated via methods that show a continuity with established practices and precedents.
Christin’s Metrics at Work starts with a historical overview of the digitization of the journalistic fields in France and the United States. In doing so, her book joins a rich lineage of scholarship on the press and its public in these two nations. These range from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1835) to contemporary works of scholarship like Rodney Benson’s Shaping Immigrant News (2013). For centuries, scholars have shown how American and French styles of journalism may share liberal-democratic underpinnings but differ in the roles they play within civil society.
For much of the 20th century, what distinguished American journalism – as Herbert Gans argued in his classic 1979 book, Deciding What’s News, which Christin builds upon – was its early professionalization and its rejection of audience data. Circulation numbers were seen as a commercial concern, to be handled by marketing and business departments, not by the autonomous and expert editorial staff. ‘Walls of separation,’ as Gans coined it, firmly differentiated editorial and marketing teams (as they, to some extent, still do). As a result, journalists performed their work as an insular, elite circle, abstracted and distanced from readers.
In contrast, French journalism has much more strongly identified as a component of civil society, one in charge of educating and guiding public opinion. Since the turn of the 20th century, French journalists have seen themselves as intellectuals directly engaged in public, political debate. Circulation numbers, while still criticized as a form of market pressure, have also been valued as a sign of recognition by and relevance to the masses.
In the 1990s, the journalistic fields in both countries had to adjust to the first digital transformation, the rise of the World Wide Web.1 Along with the internet came new economic pressures for media organizations, who were suddenly competing with blogs and online advertising. Newsrooms across the developed world were forced to pay more attention to their readers, specifically by prioritizing how they could cater to readers in exchange for financial support, whether through digital subscriptions or dwindling print advertisements. Marketing became more sophisticated, using online tracking and behavioral analytics to target readers explicitly, to maximize engagement, and to ensure loyalty as a method of economic survival. Journalists, too, pivoted in their work to center their audiences more directly.
Christin’s work carries on where studies from the past decade left off. As the methods of accounting for and representing web traffic and readership advanced, newsroom analytics flourished. Enter web metrics, the data used to analyze and optimize web usage.
These metrics come alive in Christin’s work, constantly fluctuating, accelerating, decelerating, trending, and refreshing on the screens she observes. (See the book’s appendix for fantastic insight into conducting digital ethnography.) Descriptions, as well as images, give the reader a hint at the mesmerizing qualities of Chartbeat, the analytics software used by LaPlace and The Notebook. Multiple graphs, charts, statistics, timers, counts, and arrows combine to make up Chartbeat’s interface. The metrics bring the distant news consumer inside the newsroom – only now, the consumer is represented as a collection of data points, trends, and click counts.
While the two publications may use the same analytics software, their interpretations of Chartbeat’s outputs differ. In this way, Christin challenges institutions’ and global scholars’ predictions that journalism would become homogenized as new technologies spread; she also avoids the pitfalls of technological determinism.2 The ambiguity of metrics invites opportunities for divergent interpretations, which are shaped by specific institutional contexts of production, beyond just the workings of the technological systems.
The ambiguity of metrics leads to one of the book’s most central concepts: ‘algorithmic publics.’ This concept is gaining steam in social science, as well as in computational and humanistic research, as more and more social interactions become mediated through digital platforms. Journalists ‘see’ their publics as aggregates of data, which reveal characteristics such as what articles users clicked on, how long they spent reading each one, and what other websites they frequent. Christin uses the concept of ‘algorithmic publics’ to refer to the ambiguous representations of the public sphere that arise from attributing meaning to these metrics.
In America, the algorithmic public represents a segmented market concern, not an object of substantive, intellectual, or creative interest. As one editor remarks, ‘What we see in our data is that the more we publish, the more readers we get.’ Numbers represent a simple economic indicator.
In contrast, the French algorithmic public stands for a more active and engaged civic body, which should be cared for as an economic, as well as moral, concern. A Parisian editor explains that he doesn’t ‘follow Chartbeat much,’ because ‘when you look at Chartbeat all the time, you make choices that might not be the best ones for the identity of media.’ A logic of click maximization would incentivize publishing ‘degrading’ articles, such as celebrity news or animal stories, rather than what the editor considered important, informative, and political news for the public as a civic mass.
While Christin describes these algorithmic publics in broad strokes, using categories consistent with the historical relationship between journalists and audiences in each nation, the reader may crave more texture and specificity in these rich imaginings. What does it mean for a journalist to know that 40,000 people clicked on an article about the latest reality-TV show? How do descriptions of audience preferences as ‘trashy’ or ‘obsessed’ relate to stereotypes about gender, race, class, and education? To what type of community do these metrics lead, and how do journalists situate themselves within that mass? Do journalists see themselves as similar to their audiences, or superior, or humbled? While the ambiguity of algorithmic publics speaks to the flexibility of the concept and the distance produced by differentiating digital from embodied social engagements, even abstract concepts become real in the world of their inhabitants, attaining color and granularity.
The book culminates in a comparison of how each organization resolves tensions between click-based and editorial definitions of quality by developing a distinct regime of power. In New York, The Notebook displays bureaucratic power. This regime is marked by centralized and hierarchical managerial authority, as well as clear rules and internal boundaries that separate editorial and click-based concerns. Editorial judgments are seen as more prestigious. This awards status to journalists who write slow, long-form pieces, which are clearly differentiated from pithy blog posts aimed at generating clicks. In Paris, LaPlace relies on disciplinary power. This regime is decentralized and flexible, with vague rules and weak and informal boundaries. Editorial and click-based evaluations are seen as symbiotic, with both being necessary to fulfill the publication’s dual ambitions of engagement and education.
With a keen ethnographer’s eye, Christin shows how each power regime influences the spatial and aesthetic dimensions of news production. The organization of office spaces and website interfaces either mirrors the strict, segmented, and hierarchical bureaucratic power structure in New York, or the porous, heterogeneous, and fluid disciplinary power structure in Paris. Thus, metrics migrate into the physical and digital workrooms to shape how newsrooms function. They transform the very makeup of newsroom spaces, the content and presentation of news products, and the ensuing engagements between news workers, audiences, and articles.
The comparative structure of Christin’s project is a strength. It allows for analytical scrutiny that illuminates the contextual specificity and institutional inertia that shape how nations create and communicate information. The comparative angle becomes particularly important for her argument that metrics, far from being ‘objective’ as standardized and homogenizing tools, instead function as contested and ambiguous entities. A New York journalist may interpret 10,000 clicks as a market achievement, with no implication as to the quality of their writing or ideas. However, a Parisian journalist may interpret those same 10,000 clicks as evidence of effective communication and of their success in educating their public about a relevant topic. By situating the contemporary uses and interpretations of metrics in the historical development of the role of journalists and their relationships with audiences in each nation, Metrics at Work helps the reader to understand the processes by which metrics attain their meanings and subsequent influence.
Metrics, algorithms, and digital platforms are entering ever more activities and spheres of life, a trend only accelerated by the coronavirus. As many people work, learn, pray, date, exercise, and socialize through mediated communications and digital representations, switching such technologies to ‘silent’ or pressing an off button no longer seem like options.
Christin concludes on a skeptical but optimistic note. She does not adopt a dystopian vision of technological determinism, a future in which algorithms govern human decision-making, community falls away to be replaced by mechanical interactions, or market pressures create a rat race to game the statistics. Nor, however, does she fall prey to romantic visions of the democratizing potential of the web. Rather, she holds to the power of metrics, a power to be wielded with responsibility and with attention to its far-reaching implications.
Perhaps metrics can help elevate the visibility of underrepresented voices, rather than just enforce existing market values or hegemonic hierarchies. Perhaps analytics can create new forms of accountability, rearranging priorities along with public needs. Perhaps algorithmic publics can gain affective potential, making more people feel seen, heard, and included. Perhaps, at least, we can continue to unsettle the normative numbers now embedded in our work, interactions, and identities, bringing them out of the netherworld and into the known.
The Sydney Review of Books and Public Books have partnered to exchange an ongoing series of essays with international concerns. This essay, ‘What Does A ‘Click’ Count For? by Shira Zilberstein, was published by Public Books on 31 March 2021.
1. Many journalism scholars have been fascinated by this period of transition, particularly by how it changed the way journalists relate to and think about their audiences. Christin’s overview matches studies from the early and mid-2000s recorded in works such as Pablo Boczkowski’s Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers (MIT Press, 2004) and C. W. Anderson’s Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age (Temple University Press, 2013
2. Although it does not engage directly with scholars working in the tradition of the social construction of technology, the book follows in the spirit of defining texts such as Wiebe E. Bijker, Trevor J. Pinch, and Thomas Hughes’s The Social Construction of Technological Systems (MIT Press, 1987) and Bruno Latour’s writings on actor-network-theory.