Assignment #1: Carebot

carebotRecently, I learned that the NPR Visuals Team is building a new tool “for gathering, analyzing and distributing better analytics” about audience engagement. That tool – Carebot – is still in the development stage, with a prototype due out in a couple of months. The implications for creating “affecting stories, not clickbait,” however, make for an intriguing addition to the media landscape.

The Concept

NPR Visuals has been stewing on this issue for awhile now. In the words of their senior editor, Brian Boyer, NPR Visuals exists to “make people care.” But how would a newsroom determine that their audience cares? Carebot stems directly from this question.

  • Visual content is uniquely positioned to bring people to a difficult topic, or a news story far removed from their own lives. But the “care” concept could apply to any news piece.
  • Traditional metrics of journalistic success such as pageviews and unique hits have been gamed and exploited (think cat videos vs. a long-form investigative piece).
  • NPR Visuals has started analog explorations of how their audience engages with their content, and how they think about their user in the content design. Is it a matter of completion rate? Time spent per page? Calls to action?
  • They hope that Carebot will be a more immediate, comprehensive, and transferrable tool to assess the impact of news storytelling on the audience they want to reach.

Where They’re Going

With the help of a grant from the Knight Foundation, NPR Visuals is hoping to build a new way to count and calculate the numbers.

  • Carebot will pull data from multiple sources, including Chartbeat, Google Analytics, and social networking sites. It will focus on both engagement – likes, shares, etc. – as well as time spent with a story and stories finished.
  • The measurement output will rely on a formula – still TBD – that spits out a “care metric” for any given piece.
  • Potentially, 1,000,000 pageviews could be outpaced by a story with 1,000 views and 100 shares – depending on the calculation and weight of other metrics.
  • Carebot is likely to be built into a website – and be shared as open source programming – but isn’t likely to be an analytics dashboard. Boyer describes the need to get journalists’ (and their bosses’) attention, perhaps with a simple email or other notification on their stories’ success in making their readers care.

Why It Matters

Carebot will join a small host of other publications and organizations developing new ways to “emphasize caring over clicks.” But this isn’t just a navel-gazing exercise, or a renewed gnashing of the teeth over viral media. Carebot asks important questions about impact and success, financial support, and what we want from journalism.

  • Of course, NPR (with its sponsorship model) doesn’t have to worry about advertising money as much as the next guy. Yet with some evidence that advertisers want more specific metrics, too, Carebot could help bolster the importance of the less “clickworthy” – but more worthwhile – news stories.
  • For NPR Visuals, Carebot will “test an idea: that better analytics make for better journalism.”
  • Measuring audience engagement turns the industry back to the idea of user satisfaction, rather than the satisfaction of other stakeholders.
  • If caring is celebrated, will journalists be freed to do different work? Will that work be better? More meaningful? Edifying? Representative? Lofty questions, indeed, but Carebot could be a start to answering them.