An analytics question: What are you readers *not* reading?

I’m sure most people in your newsroom could provide examples of some of your most-read stories. The one that got shared hundreds or thousands of times. The one that got linked from Google News. The one that keeps finding new audience, months after it originally published.

To be sure, there’s benefit in celebrating your wild successes.

But I think there might be more useful knowledge gained by spending time at the other end of metrics report. What coverage are you investing in that isn’t finding an audience?

Low readership numbers can be due to a lot of things:

  • Maybe a story was published at an awkward time and was pushed too quickly off its section page front.
  • Maybe the headline didn’t do it justice.
  • Maybe it didn’t get effectively (or at all) published to social platforms.
  • Maybe there’s a built-in audience for the story that would love it but just didn’t find it, and some outreach would be worthwhile. (Related post: Who’s the story’s audience?)
  • Maybe people got everything they needed from the social post or excerpt on the home page and didn’t feel compelled to click for more information.
  • And maybe the subject just didn’t interest your readers.

Regardless of which answer applies, don’t you want to know what you’re investing staff time in that is hardly getting seen? So you could then do something differently?

At times of such intense staffing shortages, wouldn’t you love to use data to know what you can stop doing?

Before anyone freaks out, I’m not suggesting that if city council numbers are low, you should stop covering city council. But I am suggesting that you should want to know that not many people are reading your government coverage. You should look at which stories within that beat get higher readership (views, time spent, shares, conversation, etc.) and figure out how to do more of that kind of coverage.

Worth acknowledging, of course, is that if you have a legacy product, it might be that your radio, TV or print audience cares deeply about something that your web audience doesn’t. Take that into account as you make decisions.

In the newsroom of the Columbia Missourian, our weekly analytics reports (sent to the whole newsroom) had a section that looked at stories that underperformed. Sometimes we’d devote extra time to that end of the Google Analytics spreadsheet. As always, we were looking for trends. We didn’t want to scapegoat any specific stories, but we wanted to know what types of stories weren’t finding an audience.

We’d take the bottom of the list (maybe the bottom 5%?), and we’d categorize them in two ways.

  1. By topic: government, education, sports, obituaries, etc.
  2. By story type: event preview, single-event coverage, feature, breaking news, general news, photo galleries, first person, etc.

We discovered interesting tidbits. The biggest actionable takeaway was that readers wanted to know about upcoming events but were generally much less interested in coverage of those same events. And that was true for sports, speeches and festivals alike. So if we were short-staffed, maybe we didn’t need to cover every volleyball game, art fair or speaker.

This is true for recurring events, too. Before you make a coverage plan for a football season, a film festival or an extreme weather event, look at the numbers from the last time you covered something similar. What coverage didn’t find an audience?

You know where else this is true? Facebook. When you continue to post things your followers just don’t engage with, you are seen as less valuable as a page overall. You’re basically giving the algorithm reasons to keep your reach low. Change up those posts or stop doing them.

If you want an excuse to stop doing something, I’m handing it to you today. Let the data tell you a story about where your effort is going unappreciated by your audience, and invite that data to help you reprioritize.

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