Before the pandemic, a big flat-panel screen loomed over the common area of C&EN’s offices in Washington, DC. On it, software from the audience metric provider Chartbeat displayed the stories that were trending on our website, along with the number of readers and their average time spent per article. Standing in front of the screen, you could become mesmerized while stories moved up and down the ranking, as if they were in a chemistry journalism popularity contest.
We weren’t the only publication with such a display. News organizations across the globe have purchased Chartbeat or similar software, and many have installed screens in their newsrooms. Popular stories are celebrated, while reporters whose stories fail to rank high are left wondering why.
C&EN’s screen was shut down during the pandemic, and even though the office has since come back to life, the screen remains dark. Maybe that’s OK.
Don’t get me wrong. I know that online readership metrics are important. C&EN’s website is an important outlet for our journalism, and we should understand what stories and other features are engaging people there. But we shouldn’t be putting undue emphasis on such metrics.
In part that’s because, unlike many other news and information sources, C&EN is also a magazine, which dues-paying members of the American Chemical Society receive weekly, either digitally or in print. (Members for 35 years or more get C&EN digital for free!) Some people who get the magazine also come to our website for daily updates or digital-only features. But our most recent reader survey shows that many ACS members are satisfied with their weekly dose of C&EN and don’t visit the site regularly.
So it should be no surprise that many of the people coming to our website are not ACS members. C&EN’s most popular story last year, according to Google Analytics, another supplier of audience metrics, was “Delta-8-THC Craze Concerns Chemists,” with almost 200,000 clicks. This excellent cover story by Britt Erickson explores impurities formed during the synthesis of ∆8-tetrahydrocannabinol (delta-8-THC), an isomer of the active ingredient in marijuana. But did 200,000 chemists visit our website to read about this cannabinoid? No. I suspect many of the clicks came from nonmembers who discovered the story while trying to learn more about a product turning up in all sorts of gummies and vape cartridges.
Similarly, the story that garnered the most clicks in February, with 135,000 views, was Rick Mullin’s piece on the derailment of a train in Ohio carrying hazardous chemicals. No doubt most of those clicks were from non-ACS members looking for good information on the troubling incident.
C&EN’s journalists cheer when non-ACS members come to our website and read our articles. ACS is happy, too. We are spreading sound information about chemistry, and some of those visitors go on to become ACS members. In fact, last year, over 1,100 people became members of the society so they could read more articles on our site.
But I don’t think most of the people who read the delta-8-THC or the derailment story are our primary audience. Others on the staff may disagree, but I think we should be writing for ACS members—people who are mainly reading the magazine. And in contrast with the ample data available about our website, we know little about what recipients of the magazine, digital or print, are reading.
In the end, we at C&EN shouldn’t—and don’t—rely too much on clicks to determine what to write about. Instead, we should—and do—turn to a time-honored skill: our well-honed journalistic instincts about what is important and interesting to the chemists who are members of ACS.
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.