The jury is out on social sharing. While many journalists and funders cite likes, Tweets and comments as valuable evidence of “engagement,” others ardently dismiss them as a symptom of a web-wide popularity contest that just distracts the public from more serious debate.

Should news producers care about shares, and the pageviews they generate? We’ve gathered a range of perspectives in our Assessing the Impact of Media (AIM) articles and research sections, summarized as follows: 
1) Yep.
Investigative journalists who are debunking a common misconception, or revealing a hidden truth can actually hope to vie head-to-head online with clever kittens and TED-style uplift, suggests io9 editor Annalee Newitz: “A hard-hitting investigative report that uncovers a nugget of genuine truth is the ultimate viral hit.” But, she posits, stories that inhabit the murky valley of opinion, scientific debate or political nuance will still go wanting for clicks. 
Similarly, Knight-Mozilla Fellow Sonya Song reports that from her embedded perch at the Boston Globe, she’s finding two styles of engagement—the “fast” kind that’s prompted by simple language, familiar images and clear emotional hooks, and the “slow” kind, associated with stories that generate more conversation through complexity and a narrative that demonstrates a turning point.
2) Nope!
Oddly enough, Jonah Paretti—a founder of the ultimate bastion of virality, Buzzfeed—told a recent gathering of magazine publishers they may care a bit too much about social and site metrics.
By focusing too narrowly on “clickbait,” he says, editors could be ignoring the “local maximum,” i.e. the “the highest amount of traffic a site can receive given the limited topics the site’s content covers.” This is welcome insight for hyperlocal and nonprofit news sites, which can rarely compete in the numbers game.
What’s more, some percentage of those followers you’re avidly coveting may well just be bots, reports Laura Entis in Entrepreneur.  “Numbers may still matter, but what matters most is influence and connection. Bought accounts won’t spread your message or buy your product, which means a core group of active followers is more valuable than thousands of fakes.”
3) Maybe…
It might just be that maximizing sharing on some stories matters to news publishers and their funders because it underwrites more substantive work. In “Why Everyone Will Totally Read this Column,” Farhad Manjoo reports for the Wall Street Journal on Gawker’s secret weapon, Neetzan Zimmerman. A human social barometer, Zimmerman’s hand-picked posts reliably generate blockbuster viral traffic, to the tune of more than 30 million page views/month.
“By earning so much traffic on his own, he effectively subsidizes the rest of the staff, liberating them to pursue deeper, longer, more experimental pieces,” writes Manjoo. “This isn’t a new model in journalism—bundling the cheap, revenue-generating content with expensive, high-minded content is how newspapers made money for decades—but it has now become the touchstone model of the Web.”
However, at a Hacks/Hackers meetup, Knight-Mozilla OpenNews Fellow Stijn Debruouwere cautioned against mistaking such buzz for social impact. He dismisses what he calls “cargo cult analytics,” and offers a four-step recovery program for those addicted to “vanity metrics”:

  • figure out what is important to your organization, what your goals are
  • think of a couple of ways in which you could move the needle on one of those goals, pick a project
  • assemble a team that will actually execute said project
  • then, and only then, think about a good metric the team can use to see whether they’re making progress.

4) What choice do we have, anyway?
Doesn’t matter whether we like these metrics or hate them, argues Muck Rack CEO Gregory Galant in Fortune. “For the time being the social share is here. It’s everywhere. It’s got many virtues. It’s got no shortage of flaws. It’s unrivaled and impossible to ignore,” he concludes.
Explore for yourself…
Need more evidence before you can make a ruling? See which stories are being shared this very second on major news outlets across the country using Bitly’s Real-Time Media Map, or dig into the latest stats on news use across social media platforms from the Pew Research Journalism Project. And be sure to check back here in our AIM section, where we’ll continue to share the latest takes on media impact questions.

About the Author
Jessica Clark

Jessica Clark

Research Consultant

Jessica is a research consultant for Media Impact Funders, and the founder and director of media production/strategy firm Dot Connector Studio. She is also currently a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project. Previously, she served as the media strategist for AIR’s groundbreaking Localore project, the director of the Future of Public Media project at American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact, and a Knight Media Policy Fellow at D.C.-based think tank the New America Foundation. Over the past decade, she has led research and convenings with high-profile universities and national media networks, including NPR, PBS, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, MIT, and USC’s Annenberg School for Communication. She is the co-author of Beyond the Echo Chamber: Reshaping Politics Through Networked Progressive Media (The New Press, 2010), and a longtime independent journalist.