To see the point of metrics, journalists need to understand what their organizations are doing to survive and thrive. That goes way beyond the high-flying language of a mission statement.
“You have a better chance of getting people to use data if they really understand how their work fits into the larger goals,” said Liz Worthington, who directs Metrics for News for the American Press Institute.
The newsrooms that are most effective at using metrics are the ones that connect every journalist’s work to the company’s success, and provide teaching and learning resources to understand what’s measured and why, spot opportunities, and celebrate important victories.
“You can’t give an editor or reporter a measure that they don’t know how to change and expect them to know how to change it,” said Dan Frohlich, a digital metrics analyst at NPR. NPR uses its digital metrics analysts as translators who explain executive-level strategy in terms of newsroom-level activity.
File this advice under “it’s simple, not easy”: Most of the success that we saw in different organizations comes down to the level at which leadership talks about the newsroom’s goals.
For instance, The Dallas Morning News uses conversion — turning interested readers into subscribers — as its key performance indicator, but that’s not the target for journalists; it’s too hard, and too far away from their actual jobs.
“Setting conversion goals is tricky, but we can set goals around metrics that correlate [to it],” said Amanda Wilkins, who managed audience development for the Morning News before moving to a product development role at McClatchy. “Our overarching company key performance indicator is conversion, but individual KPIs are returning visitors and engaged minutes in a story. That’s a huge takeaway.”
Whereby.us has used that strategy-to-activity link in every one of its hyperlocal sites. Right now, they’re focused on increasing the total weekly open rate for their newsletters — a number that’s easy for their advertisers to understand and also a good number to follow if you’re trying to turn reading the daily news into a serious habit for readers.
“Everyone is aware of business metrics in the company, and that’s rule number one,” said Rebekah Monson, the co-founder and chief operations officer at Whereby.us, the parent company of newsletter-fueled local startups like The Evergrey in Seattle and The New Tropic in Miami. “… Everyone in the company is aware that total weekly opens is a thing we’re working on because everyone in the company has a stand-up every day where we look at the dashboard and say, ‘Here’s what the numbers are. Does anything change?’
“Every week, we do an all-hands demo session and every single team posts a win from the week. … We help every team see we’re all responsible for this thing.”
That sounds like a lot of meetings, but Monson credits the company’s growth and the popularity of each hyperlocal site to the relentless focus on metrics. Everyone, she said, has a stake in the survival and financial health of the whole company — an understanding that not every newsroom shares.
Conversations that respectfully and successfully connect newsroom work to financial stability are as varied as the newsrooms where they have been held, but have certain elements in common.
Every newsroom we spoke with acknowledged that demanding metrics-thinking from journalists is often distressing — because the conversations are too often framed in terms of business, not in terms of journalism, and because journalists who are fluent in reading a city budget or filing FOIA requests have never been formally trained in data analysis.
Being tailored, saying, ‘What are the decisions that I make as a person? What are the levers that I can pull? How can I only look at metrics that I can control? … That keeps it relevant and actionable and prevents analysis paralysis.
At Financial Times, the newsroom relies on Renée Kaplan to direct audience engagement. Kaplan, a longtime print and broadcast journalist, “has really moved the needle,” Tom Betts said. “[She] goes to editorial conference and at the beginning of every editorial conference will have a moment to have a fact or reflection about some data we’ve seen in the past 24 hours. It’s become part and parcel of the way editorial works, and that’s only possible because data analysts are now part of the editorial organization rather than working at arm’s length from it.”
It’s also important not to over-educate. A reporter, photographer or editor doesn’t need to become a full-time data analyst, and most don’t want to.
“I’m a big believer that data is wonderful, but too much data is not good for anyone,” said Jill Nicholson, director of customer education at Chartbeat. “Being tailored, saying, ‘What are the decisions that I make as a person? What are the levers that I can pull? How can I only look at metrics that I can control? … That keeps it relevant and actionable and prevents analysis paralysis.”
In the newsroom, a useful education might look like a conversation with an editor to identify which topic areas are sparking the most engagement — and that ends with the editor asking the reporter what questions she has about that data, or about how a more engaged audience translates into revenue.
Or it might look like a meeting or memo that identifies trends or anomalies in reader behavior and asks for ideas about what to do next.
Or it might look like a personalized dashboard that lets a journalist track how their work fits into the overall health of the paper — attracting new audiences or keeping subscribers engaged. At the Philadelphia Media Network, for instance, a new internal tool lets newsroom staffers look at stories and sections with some context that explains what the newsroom is trying to perfect.
“It’s meant to solve for gaps that we see in other tools,” says Daniel McNichol, the senior data analyst at Philly.com. “We’re trying to provide alignment, context, and structure. … It’s been very clarifying for where the various strengths and core competencies are for teams and desks.”