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Ask the right questions, use the right data

One of the most popular knocks on metrics-oriented newsrooms is best summarized as “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

In other words, if the only metric you have is unique visitors, then you might be fooled into thinking that growing the number of unique visitors is the goal.

While that might have been a fair concern a few years ago, newsrooms that use metrics well know what each one can and cannot do, and they regularly check back to understand whether focusing on a particular digital metric is actually having the desired effect on the real-world bottom line.

At Whereby.us, that means regular check-ins to make sure that they’re doing (and measuring) the right things.

“Over the past six months we’ve done a ton of work at subscriber acquisition, and we were running really hard at that for so long,” said Rebekah Monson. The New Tropic and The Evergrey were promoting new sign-ups with referral campaigns, giveaways in the newsletter, and partnerships with community groups. It was working — sign-ups were accelerating. But there was a problem.

“We were seeing that we’re getting more subscribers, but they’re not giving as much value to the product or the community as we think,” Monson said. “We’re adding subscribers but they’re not engaging with the thing we make. It was apparent to everyone working on it, every local director.”

So Whereby.us dropped newsletter subscriptions as a key performance indicator and shifted to newsletter opens.

Data-savvy startups aren’t the only newsrooms that are putting metrics in their place.

Erica Smith is the director of digital strategy and an online editor at The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Virginia. In January 2017, she helped launch Metrics for News in her newsroom.

“We were measuring things for quite a while [before Metrics for News],” she said. “But we were making it up — using metrics like pageviews, time on site, and user numbers.”

Once her newsroom started using Metrics for News, they started to measure other factors — how long stories were, how long they took to report, what kinds of visuals they had — to help them figure out where The Virginian-Pilot was spending most of its resources and whether those resources were allocated correctly.

“We knew that news seemed to do really well, but what in news? We knew local news does well, but what in local?” she said. “At that point, we were thinking more along the lines of education stories versus crime stories, which is a no-brainer because crime almost always wins.”

But education stories are important; the paper wasn’t going to drop schools coverage. Instead, senior editors at The Virginian-Pilot used data to identify the most valued elements of every beat, and to establish new beats.

“We looked at what’s doing well and what has more potential,” says Smith. “[One editor] pulled together material that said that our business section does okay, but consumer news — things like information about new restaurants or new businesses — does really, really well. So we created a consumer team that focuses just on those stories.”

The new data also helped The Virginian-Pilot move away from pageviews and toward numbers that would help their strategy around subscriptions.

“We had a story that went viral last year and it brought people from all over the world, but they were here for two seconds and that was it,” says Smith. “It didn’t mean we got more subscribers or increased the number of people who stuck around. … As we start to pull in more and different types of data, we can see a lot better what subscribers look at versus someone who is a casual reader. [From pageviews], sports was an underperformer, but if you’re looking at the stories that subscribers look at, sports is where it’s at.”

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