Media Moves and News

How to succeed in a metric-driven news operation

August 17, 2015

Posted by Lauren Thomas

economic dataJournalists shouldn’t be afraid of data today, but they should be aware of the metrics and analytics that can be measured online and use the information to dissect what stories do well and what stories don’t do well, said Josh Awtry, an editor of two local newspapers in the Carolinas.

“As an industry we are still toddlers when it comes to tracking this data,” Awtry said during a training call hosted by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers on Monday. “You succeed in business when you know what readers want, and you can’t guess at that.”

During SABEW’s monthly teletraining, a panel of professionals with experience in journalism and with monitoring daily metrics discussed how they measure the impact of their work once it is published. With an increasing focus in many newsrooms today on page views, unique visits and engaged time online, journalists are looking to platforms like Chartbeat and Google Analytics to help them make decisions on what to cover and how to push their stories to the right audiences.

The panel included Lindsay Green-Barber, a media impact analyst and ACLS Public Fellow at the Center for Investigative Reporting; Greg Linch, a producer on The Washington Post’s mobile innovation group called Team Rainbow; Awtry, vice president and executive editor of the Asheville Citizen-Times and the Greenville News; and moderator Erik Siemers, managing editor of the Portland Business Journal, which is part of American City Business Journals.

Siemers began the call by discussing how, with such a small staff in his Portland newsroom, “numbers lead the day.” For Siemers and his team of five reporters, “numbers and metrics are very much baked into the newsroom culture.”

Siemers doesn’t feel obligated to cover earnings reports for every company now, for example, because his “readers don’t come for that,” and many readers are looking for a “bigger strategy story.” Siemers looks at web traffic and unique visitors to make decisions about how to cover different news. Monitoring metrics helps him determine what stories are resonating best with readers, he said.

But numbers can’t dictate everything. Analytics can’t tell a story well for investigate reporting, for example, according to Green-Barber with CIR, a non-profit organization. She believes there can be “an overabundance of analytics online” that bog journalists down.

Instead, Green-Barber built an internal database to keep track of the impact that CIR has in the community. For her, being able to communicate that the work she does results in positive changes in the community ultimately engages readers and gets more people involved.

Linch, a producer with The Washington Post, tried to apply what Green-Barber said to the for-profit news that he deals with daily. The Post uses quantitative metrics, he said, but those only tell “one side” of the bigger picture.

“We have to build a bridge between these metrics that are handed to us and what we value as journalists,” Linch said. From an advertising standpoint impressions might be important, he said, but journalists should also want to inform and entertain people.

“As journalists we look at what our work does, and we need to keep track of things that happen as a result of our work,” Linch said. It’s not just a journalist’s job to publish a story but to look beyond the publishing step and see what happens after that, he said. “That’s where the more interesting questions lie.”

Awtry echoed this point by saying there are ultimately “no answers” in analytics and data but that they should point journalists toward other questions to ask, prompting a deeper conversation. Journalists shouldn’t look at their data and instantly come to an answer, he said, but they should “dig into the data.”

“Use every data sweep you’ve got to draw as many data points as you can,” Awtry said. By looking at surveys and click rates, journalists can make connections to what readers want and use those in order to plan stories in the future, he said.

SABEW conducts these training calls every month, and the next one – “How Journalists Can Develop A Personal Brand” – will be held Monday, Sept. 14. An archived version of the teletraining will be made available here.

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