Darren Rovell and metrics in sports journalism

Three years ago, Darren Rovell wrote on Medium about the need for journalists to be data driven. He tweeted it this week, framing it as how the annual July 4 hot dog eating contest at Coney Island changed his view of journalism.

The simple fact is that we live in a dialogue world, not a monologue. We, as journalists and editors, can’t devote 100 percent of our time to what we think we should do. We have to devote a good amount of our time to what the masses want us to do. And if we don’t, we become irrelevant.

First off — there's nothing wrong with covering the hot dog eating contest. Or mascot races. Sports journalism would be infinitely better if we took the world at least 37 percent less seriously and had a little more fun.

But Rovell, of course, made this all about himself and about his redefinition of journalism. When, in fact, it's always been like this.

This always been the central tension within journalism. Doing the stories we want to do vs. what the audience wants. Doing the stories we feel we should do vs. the stories we have to do to pay the bills. There's a great scene in Good Night, and Good Luck, in which Edward R. Murrow interviews Liberace in a total puff piece. The context, of course, is that in order to pay for and do the important work that made Murrow Morrow, he had to do the 1950s equivalent of covering the hot dog eating contest. To paint this idea as something new and revolutionary is new-media gasbaggery at its finest.

What is new, is metrics.

Now we have cold hard numbers telling us what people are reading, what they're sharing, when they're reading, how they're reading and for how long they're reading it. It's gone from an ineffable sixth sense to something far more scientific.

For better or worse, the metric has become the defining news value of the digital age. It, more than almost anything else, shapes news judgement and editorial decisions. In some ways, it's the reason why The Athletic exists — because the subscription model stands in contrast to the metric-driven model of daily journalism.

The lie in this is that a story only has value if people read it or share it. That there is no value in the incremental, steady, drip-by-drip daily coverage. That a story today, even if not popular, can lead to a bigger story three months from now. The lie in this is that the audience is the be-all, end-all, that the metric is the only thing we should listen to.

The big lie, of course, is that stories we want and stories the audience wants are necessarily mutually exclusive.