Looking Back: Seven Years at Chartbeat

I broke the news over on the Chartbeat blog today that recently I resigned as CEO from the company that has dominated my every waking thought for the last seven years. I feel like it’s time to get my hands dirty again in the mess of building a new company. I was able to do this, knowing that I was leaving it in good hands with an excellent team and a strong CEO in my former COO John Saroff.

As Chartbeat looks to the future, this is one of those rare moments where I get to look back and celebrate what the team has been able to accomplish. Chartbeat has always been mission-driven. Tattooed on our hearts is S.S. McClure’s statement that the vitality of democracy requires popular knowledge of complex questions. When we fail at this, we get Trump.

Getting to popular knowledge means it is not simply a journalist’s job to write the important stories but to communicate them. The important story that is weighed down by impenetrable text or hidden behind the wrong headline fails as much as the clickbait pablum masquerading behind a golden lede. Chartbeat’s first job was, and is, to show journalists where they were writing but not communicating.

Now, nearly every newsroom can look at the mirror of their audience and understand if what they wish to say is being heard. Sometimes, the reflection is unpalatable but if we are to do our jobs we cannot look away and fantasize a more pleasing image.

If journalists were to see clearly, they would need metrics that usefully reflect reality. Our competitors and often our customers thought us crazy for refusing to show unique visitors or pageviews, but we felt that a product should have an opinion and if so that that opinion should be clear. We oriented our products around the idea that publishers should care about audience more than traffic and created accurate new metrics like engaged time that endeavored to reward content that did not just attract users but kept them.

Since then almost every modern analytics service in the media industry has adopted these metrics (under various names) and it warmed my heart to see the New York Times, GQ, and The New Yorker among others define their best of year lists through the prism of total attention instead of clicks. It’s a long way from perfect, but the mirror is a little more clear.

Finally, we believed that journalism could not truly be sustainable unless we found some way to quantitatively link the quality of the content to the value of the page. We had no background in advertising, but understood that unless we tried to change the way journalism was funded, we’d always only be tackling one side of the problem. The team took on the Herculean task of defining an entirely new currency and infrastructure for advertising based around attention rather than impressions.

We were immensely lucky that the Financial Times saw something special in what we were doing and worked with us to bring this to market. They subsequently and justifiably won awards for the best commercial innovation of 2015. Now a coalition of publishers and technology companies are showing what can happen when you care more about a person’s mind than their index finger.

I’m under no illusions as to the challenges that remain in trying to change the fundamentals of an advertising industry inured to sclerotic inertia, but the challenge is attracting the brightest minds and the cause is just.

CEOs get to take the blame but they also get to take the credit. Often the former is warranted and the latter is not. That is certainly so in my case. As proud as I am of what the team have been able to accomplish externally over the last seven years, my proudest moments have been watching these people who I love attack each challenge, demonstrate an unswerving commitment to something larger than themselves and grow beyond their own horizons.

It has been the privilege of my life, and I will miss you all.

2 responses to “Looking Back: Seven Years at Chartbeat”

  1. Great post and excited for your next challenge. I’m also glad that John got the call to head up Chartbeat.