12 marzo 2015 | 17:35

Uno strumento per misurare l’attenzione sul web fa ben sperare sulle sorti del giornalismo di qualità

Chartbeat si prepara a lanciare un nuovo sistema di calcolo dell’attenzione online. Dopo aver inventato uno degli strumenti più utilizzati per tracciare il comportamento dei lettori, la mission si espande, come riporta la Columbia Journalism Review.

L’azienda ha lanciato nel 2009 il primo servizio di analisi del pubblico sul web, readership, in tempo reale, misurando quante persone stanno leggendo una determinata storia.

Ora la nuova sfida è misurare l’attenzione, cioè il tempo trascorso su quel determinato articolo e potrebbe diventare, secondo il Ceo di Chartbeat, Tony Haile, la nuova metrica del web. “L’unica unità di misura che ci interessa e su cui siamo ossessionati è l’attenzione”dice il Ceo ai suoi dipendenti. La vera domanda, sottolinea l’articolo, è se questo cambio di unità di misura convincerà anche i pubblicitari. Haile spera che le top stories più lette siano anche di qualità. Tra le parole che hanno raccolto la maggior attenzione sul web negli Stati Uniti nel 2013, ci sono state Siria, Egitto, Obamacare, Snowden, mentre quelle che hanno attirato meno l’attenzione (ma hanno fatto comunque molti click) ci sono state top, best, biggest, richest.

Tony Haile

Tony Haile (foto Cjr.org)

Can Tony Haile save journalism by changing the metric?

The company that wants to deliver journalism from a decade of digital bloodletting is perched like a physical metaphor in an office six stories above the Strand—a century-old monument to paper.

Housed in the airy, light-filled remnants of a yoga studio, Chartbeat, a Web analytics company, bears the usual startup trappings. There are free snacks, a fridge full of beer, and offices named after superhero lairs: The Hall of Justice, The Bat Cave. Such grandiosity is usually a sign of a company angling for a foothold, but in this case the ego is earned. In the six years since its creation, Chartbeat has become the arbiter of audience in the digital age. Roughly 80 percent of the top 100 publishers, as measured by traffic, use Chartbeat to track their online readership—places like Al Jazeera, The New York Times, Forbes, Gawker and Gannett. Yet the company’s mission has expanded exponentially beyond tracking Web traffic. Instead of simply monitoring journalism, Chartbeat wants to save it.

Chartbeat CEO Tony Haile says he conveys the company’s “singular purpose” to every employee who goes through orientation: “Twenty years from now, the journalist that wants to investigate the corrupt politician actually has the means to do so. As in: There is enough money to invest in that person to do that job.”

Chartbeat at first seems an unlikely candidate to keep quality journalism profitable, since its product helped spur the era of quick hits and clickbait. Launched in 2009, it was the first Web analytics service to show a website’s audience in real time, allowing an editor to see how many people are reading a story, right this minute. A separate displayorganizes the most popular pages by size in a colorful mosaic that re-arranges itself as readership grows or drops. Using Chartbeat, an editor can see with a glance which stories are popular and which are not, a service that’s proven lucrative for the company. Though launched during a time when most analytics services were free, Chartbeat has cultivated over 50,000 subscribers who pay monthly rates ranging from $9.95 to tens of thousands, depending on traffic.

It has also birthed a new age, in which journalists and editors can react rapidly to their audiences. During a 2012 interview with NBC, Gawker founder Nick Denton showed off the giant wall-mounted monitor that prominently displayed Chartbeat’s ranking of popular stories to his staff. “This is the most terrifying thing we have to show you, for traditional journalists,” he boasted. “It’s as if every single day, every single week is sweeps and the numbers tell the whole story.” This “big board,” now standard décor for many digital publications, translated the value of a piece of journalism into a simple round figure—the number of people who’d clicked on it.

The problem, of course, is that there are all kinds of ways to garner a click that have nothing to do with quality: slideshows, provocative headlines, uber-short pieces on timely topics. Some sites, like Gawker, directly incentivized the chase for clicks by paying writers based on traffic. But the onset of real-time data has increased the myriad pressures facing journalists, regardless of salary scheme. If a reporter’s efficacy hinges on her ability to deliver readers what they want when they want it, then Chartbeat seemed to provide a tantalizing way of assessing demand.

But catering to clicks hasn’t encouraged editors to worry about the larger, more noble tasks that drove many to journalism in the first place, and that make it a valuable tool for the common good. “Chartbeat’s machines don’t track abstract notions like truth or accuracy,” read a cutting Gothamist post skewering the service for encouraging sensationalism by design. Lou Ferrara, the vice president and managing editor of the Associated Press, told me that he worries deeply about the effects analytics have on his reporters’ instincts. “Imagine if Woodward and Bernstein had access to this kind of data and they said, ‘I’m sorry, this break-in is not really trending.’”

If tools like Chartbeat have quickened journalism’s slow dive, Haile believes that’s due to a misuse of his product, catalyzed by the economics of the Web. There is a single villain: the click. The click is a poor measure of audience, applying the same value to an attentive reader and a drive-by visitor. They’re also easy to fake. At one point, corrupt marketers hired armies of humans to increase impressions with their mouse, but now the process has been outsourced to robots. These “fraudulent bots” are responsible for about 36 percent of online traffic, according to data cited by the Interactive Advertising Bureau. Yet, since the advent of digital advertising, CPMs, a measure of cost per thousand impressions, has been the industry standard for selling digital advertising, which sets the measure of Web traffic. Which means that, like it or not, analytics companies like Chartbeat have to measure impressions.

That’s what Chartbeat is out to change. Over the last year, Haile has increased his public stature to become one of the most visible proponents of a metric that he believes can realign advertising dollars to the content most worthy of them: attention. “Time is finite for each of us,” says Haile, which makes it a scarce and therefore valuable unit for advertisers. He and his colleagues at Chartbeat have been pushing the media establishment to adopt attention, or the amount of time spent on a landing page, as the universal measurement of Web traffic.

This switch, Haile believes, will increase the value of the kind of content people are actually reading—the kind of content that has taken a beating in recent years. “We’re in crisis because we chose the wrong metrics,” says Haile. “And that has kind of screwed everything.”

HAILE, 37, IS TALL, soft-spoken, and an avid thinker. He chronicles his yearly book consumption in an oft-updated personal blog. In 2014, Haile read 54 volumes of fiction, history, and philosophy—a low number for him, which he blames on the demands of his growing business. Among the most meaningful reads, Haile lists Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit, a mammoth history of what Goodwin calls “the golden age of journalism” during Theodore Roosevelt’s term. On the pages of his blog, Haile’s writing can display a cutting intensity, but in person he is vigorously sincere. Lingering at his standing desk in the center of Chartbeat’s open office, Haile seems more affable engineer than CEO.

Haile emerged in New York’s tech scene by accident, having spent much of his twenties as a polar explorer (which explains his Twitter handle). Bouncing around the most remote places on earth, including the North Pole and the Canadian Arctic, with his expedition partner, Ben Saunders, Haile’s penchant for extreme adventure provided an outlet for his interest in technology. While crewing a round-the-world yacht race, Haile busied himself with communication tools. “Below deck, I was the geek, making sure the satellite could broadcast despite 90ft waves blocking line of sight,” he wrote on his blog. But by 2006, Haile was pushing 30, and had grown weary of the demands of fundraising for these expeditions. Recalling that time, he wrote on his blog: “My parents have started to have very real fears about my future and I can see the strain on their faces.”

A last-ditch effort to raise money for an expedition to the South Pole brought Haile to New York in 2007. New Yorkers would fund anything, he had heard. But when Haile’s six-page critique of a friend’s business plan made it into the hands of a startup founder, a job offer distracted him from his original quest. In 2009, he connected with Betaworks, the New York tech-incubator responsible for success stories like bit.ly and Instapaper, which had a product it didn’t know what to do with. One of Betaworks’ co-founders, Billy Chasen, best known for creatingturntable.fm, a site that allows users to stream and share music, had created a mesmerizing display that analyzed Web traffic. “It was almost like an art project at the time,” recalls Haile. He was brought on to find a business that could be built around Chasen’s analytics product, which was called Chartbeat.

Four days after Haile was hired, Chasen went on an extended spiritual quest to India, leaving Haile to chart a course for a product with a market problem. “When we kicked off, it’s like you’ve got Google Analytics out there, which is free. And everyone has it,” Haile said. “And we’re an analytics service.” In order to charge for a service that Google was offering for free, Chartbeat had to offer its clients something different.

Google Analytics provided historical data, which could be sorted and categorized by data personnel in myriad ways to look at long-term trends. Chartbeat focused on “real-time” data—what’s happening on your site right now—presented simply, in a single dashboard.

While adhering to real-time data was a strategy to circumvent Google, Chartbeat entered into it at a precipitous moment. The rise of social media allowed stories to spike and trend in isolation from the mother ship; the homepage no longer dictated traffic. There was a sudden need for editors to understand who was reading what, so they could react immediately. Chartbeat could shift data away from the analysts and put it in front of the people who were generating the traffic in the first place—the journalists. “That was kind of our first real breakthrough,” says Haile.

Continua su Columbia Journalism Review (11 marzo 2015)