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?
I’m delivering a webinar for the Knight Digital Media Center next week, and I wrote this blog post introducing it. It was originally published by KDMC.
If you sell shoes for a living, you have a clear metric for success: How are my sales, and are they enough to keep me in business? When you do or fund mission-driven work, the metrics are much less obvious, but it’s still natural to crave them. If you think your work is making a difference, it’s important on many levels to have evidence that you’re right.
But when your primary goal is not something concrete like dollars made or products created, how do you know if what you’re doing is “working?”
One good plan of action is to define what “working” means to you, find some metrics you can attach to those, then commit to the time it will take to track those metrics.
As a preview, let’s look at each of those three steps individually.
1. Set goals.The important first step is defining what you hope will happen as the result of your work. If this is hard for you, roll around in it for awhile and get comfortable, because you can’t move on unless you get really specific here. Do you hope people will get more involved with your organization? Take action on an issue? Attend an event? Or how about this one: Learn? Often, one core goal is raising awareness. Think about those days you leave work feeling really satisfied. What has likely happened? What drives you and your organization? What is success?
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I just watched this archived talk from September 2013 from Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s center for Civic Media.
Zuckerman is smart about a lot of things. Today, I especially enjoyed the last section of this 15-minute talk, when he talks about:
- news judgment and accompanying responsibilities
- encouraging the right kind of civic action
- reaching a new generation of media consumers with impact-oriented messages
What we can’t keep doing is building news that is disconnected from peoples’ ability to have an impact. We can’t continue to say, “We’re going to put this information out here, you’re going to be an informed citizen, and then something will happen and it’s all going to work out from there.”
The Atlantic’s post on Friday about the list of the top New York Times stories of 2013 has prompted some interesting discussions.
The most-read story of the year was a dialect quiz — you answer questions about how you talk, and you’re shown which parts of the country mostly closely match your dialect patterns.
It’s a data-driven interactive quiz based on 350,000 survey responses collected by an NYT graphics editor. It’s a game. It’s not an article.
The Atlantic post says this:
“Think about that. A news app, a piece of software about the news made by in-house developers, generated more clicks than any article. And it did this in a tiny amount of time: The app only came out on December 21, 2013. That means that in the 11 days it was online in 2013, it generated more visits than any other piece.”
A journalist friend of mine expressed dismay that the quiz didn’t answer the why and how of the issue. It lacked context and utility, he argued, and he compared it to a Buzzfeed list.
Here’s what I think: Journalistic standards for importance and excellence can get in the way of providing a product people want to consume and use. Turning the research behind this quiz into a story would be valid and informational. But it’s not the only way.
The unbelievably smart and passionate Breeze Richardson of Chicago Public Media chatted with my Participatory Journalism class this afternoon. We talked about the engagement metrics she has set up, which she described beautifully in this RJI blog post, the need for a culture of assessment in newsrooms, and how to best effect organizational change.
I always leave conversations with Breeze:
- Determined to change the culture of journalism
- Optimistic about opportunities for change
- Wondering if she’s hiring, because I’d love to work with her
I want to share just a few of the highlights from today’s conversation.
- “If something is going to be institutionalized, it should be tracked and measured.”
- Whenever possible, tie specific projects and efforts back to an organization’s strategic plan. If you have a mission that talks about bringing in more voices from the community, and you can tie specific efforts to that part of the plan, you have clear backup for your ideas. You also have a way to hold people accountable — something to point to that offers justification for the strategy.
- Know what you’re tracking and what you’re not tracking, and track metrics that address your goals. This is another way of saying one of my favorite metrics mantras: The ROI of analytics data that lead to no action is zero. Track only what helps you make decisions.
- Newsrooms are not used to being held accountable. Digital journalism has given us a window into audience, and being responsive to that audience is not always comfortable.
- To reward people who focus on engagement, credit staff by name whenever possible. Don’t underestimate public praise as a motivator.
- Think about what concrete steps reporters can take to make their stories engagement-friendly. This is one my newsroom is about to take on — a best practices guide for implementing the diagram on the wall of our newsroom showing the kind of journalism we value.
I had the privilege of hosting, along with the awesome Reuben Stern, a workshop at RJI last month on measuring engagement. My motivation for the event was really justifying engagement. We can’t value what we don’t measure, and we can’t convince our bosses/funders/supporters to invest in audience unless we can show it works.
After an intense few weeks of editing, Reuben and I published (on behalf of our esteemed participants) the report of suggestions. Here’s the intro we put on the RJI website. Please go there to read the rest, or download the report (the link is at the top of the post). It includes a huge (but easily scannable and digestible) table that shows some specific engagement goals and strategies, what value they offer to newsrooms and how they can be measured.