How to build a metrics-savvy newsroom
Journalists have a reputation for dismissing data about their stories. But it’s undeserved.
After all, the axiom “if it bleeds, it leads” describes a newsroom practice driven by the metrics of newsstand sales and broadcast ratings. Pulitzers and Emmys are qualitative data that indicates a reporter’s work is respected by her peers.
Journalists don’t hate data. They just prefer data that’s easy to understand (because they’re busy), gives them immediately useful information about how to serve their audiences (because they’re still busy), and confirms that their work makes a difference to their newsrooms and communities (because that’s the mission).
But, while journalists might welcome feedback, the digital audience metrics served to newsrooms are often frustrating and more confusing than helpful.
Many of the reporters, producers and editors we spoke to for this study either say they don’t understand what the numbers say, or they’re worried that the metrics they see can’t really tell them how to serve their audiences.
We interviewed two dozen journalists and data analysts across 20 organizations, hunting for practices that are broad enough to be useful to most newsrooms, but specific enough that they provide at least a basic blueprint.”
Pageviews. Time on site. Subscribers. Open rate. Engagement. Bounce rate. Conversion. All of these describe audience behavior. But, unlike surveys, comments or face-to-face conversations, they don’t explicitly reveal what readers actually think and feel about the news.
Most digital metrics are an approximation for what news organizations really want to know. And that is …
“Love. How much are we loved by a certain reader, know what I mean?” said Sari Zeidler, Quartz’s director of growth. “We can see how often people are returning and what journey they’re taking down the funnel, but what we really want to know is do they love us, and how do we impact them? That’s what journalism is about: Did we have an impact on their life? We can know they open an email every day, but I want to better understand who is this person and why do they love us and how do they love us. What makes them so hardcore?”
And, until we can measure that, journalists will be skeptical. The abiding challenge is that metrics alone can’t tell a newsroom where to focus its attention. Metrics must be matched to strategy, to culture and to the specific job that each journalist was hired to do.
This report examines the best ways for newsrooms to think and communicate about metrics. It is part of the American Press Institute’s collection of Strategy Studies — in-depth reports that provide practical guidance for addressing important journalism challenges.
As we set out to write this study, we began with a few goals.
We wanted to speak to lots of newsrooms with lots of different resources and audiences. We knew that a strategy that works for Financial Times or NPR might not work at the Anchorage Daily News or the Virginian-Pilot, purely based on resources. We also wanted to talk to journalists who have seen successes and failures as they try to get their newsrooms more involved with audience data. And we spoke with non-journalism media, including Sesame Workshops, that have found long-term success in blending audience data with editorial judgment.
We also wanted to talk to the companies and nonprofits that provide metrics dashboards, consulting and other services and tools for newsrooms, including API’s Metrics for News, Chartbeat and Parse.ly. As bridges across many news organizations, metrics services providers and analysts have a broad and valuable view.
In the course of our reporting, we interviewed two dozen journalists and data analysts across 20 organizations, hunting for practices that are broad enough to be useful to most newsrooms, but specific enough that they provide at least a basic blueprint.
As you read further, we encourage you to look for examples from organizations that have a business model similar to your own.
Some of the organizations we studied pay the bills with advertising dollars; those organizations, like New Tropic and Evergrey parent company Whereby.us, are increasingly focused on building narrow, high-devotion audiences rather than chasing a million people who will click (or sign up) but never return to the site or open a newsletter.
Other organizations are shifting toward a subscriber model, and they are tightly focused on understanding how to move people from casual readers to frequent readers and, ultimately, subscribers. Those organizations, like the Dallas Morning News, are spending a lot of time thinking about that conversion process and zeroing in on simple things they can do to speed up the time it takes for someone to subscribe.
All of the organizations we surveyed had one common priority: They agree that building and sustaining high-quality journalism has to be at the center of any revenue strategy.
Metrics for decisions vs. metrics for learning
Educators would identify a lot of the “how you did” metrics in newsrooms these days as “summative assessments.” In classrooms, this is a grade — the 99 you got in news writing, the 62 in statistics.
At media companies, summative assessment is valuable for managers and executives who need to decide whether to keep or kill a product; whether to keep producing social video or shift that time into newsletters; or whether to submit a story for an award.
This is how most journalists have encountered metrics — as a final figure that they can’t change. Your story got this many pageviews. Your post got this many comments.
While summative assessments are useful for executives, those kinds of metrics rarely create fresh learning for staff. Why? Because they’re not analyzed and explained at a point when reporters and editors can change anything.
The other way to use metrics is what educators call a “formative assessment.” It focuses on how to achieve a goal, rather than judging whether a goal was met.
At Financial Times, an audience engagement team goes from desk to desk, helping every team understand the numbers. “They’ll do a health check to help you interpret your audience compared to a typical FT audience, and identify things that are interesting, and together come up with an experiment to test,” said Chief Data Officer Tom Betts.
With that help, reporters have figured out the best publication times — for the FT, the 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. start of the business day is the live-or-die window. “If you are filing copy late, you’re missing most of the audience,” Betts said.
Once a reporting team has tested that kind of idea, they generally don’t need further persuasion — just the chance to change their workflow to take advantage of new knowledge.
Connect metrics to strategy
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.”
Make metrics simple — and meaningful
How do newsroom metrics advocates pique their colleagues’ interest in using data?
Many of the editors, data analysts and trainers we spoke to start by offering a checklist of simple things, like adding links to related stories, that journalists can add to their workflow. After a week or two, the metrics evangelists check back in to look at the results, and discuss what to do next.
It’s also important to help each journalist figure out their “Goldilocks” cadence for checking metrics — not too often, not too occasionally, but just enough to help with their work.
Those tasks are at the center of Jill Nicholson’s work at Chartbeat.
The company’s hallmark product is a dashboard hanging over the newsroom, announcing digital performance in real time — but Nicholson spends a lot of time explaining that those visual cues are useful as a conversation starter, not an end point.
When people think about data, they think about new beats, strategies, products. Sometimes it’s just ‘Make sure there’s a link in the story, move this video up on the page a bit.’ Small changes can have big impact and you don’t have to be as afraid of it as I think people are.”
She noted that the best conversations for new-to-metrics newsrooms often start with simple checklists and a challenge with a nugget of strategic information (bolded here) — “Did you put a related link in that story? You got the reader to one page, can you get some of them onto a second page? There’s a correlation between the number of pages someone reads and the likelihood that they’ll come back.” She gives them a few news cycles to experiment and then checks back.
“When people think about data, they think about new beats, strategies, products,” she said. “Sometimes it’s just ‘Make sure there’s a link in the story, move this video up on the page a bit.’ Small changes can have big impact and you don’t have to be as afraid of it as I think people are.”
Her other concern, she said, is finding that Goldilocks cadence of information for every job in the newsroom.
“How frequently should a reporter be checking in versus a homepage editor? If you are a homepage editor, and you are making nothing but real-time decisions, you need to be constantly finding areas where there is a disconnect and making adjustments.
“If you’re a reporter, you don’t need to be staring at a dashboard with that cadence. You need to be looking at yesterday to see what resonated and what didn’t. If you’re an editor, are you looking back at a month to see what stories resonated really well — let’s spend time making an adjustment seeing what we can change in the future.”
Look for places where the audience and journalists agree
One extremely powerful way to get skeptical newsrooms to buy into metrics is to find the places where metrics affirm that readers and journalists want the same things.
The annual Iditarod sled-dog race presented a terrific opportunity for The Anchorage Daily News to experiment with metrics and storytelling, and allowed them to make changes to their coverage that both readers and journalists found meaningful.
“That was something we had to do every year,” said editor David Hulen. “That was a thing that in the past drew huge traffic because we owned the coverage and it was really significant. We sold advertising around it; it got a lot of online traffic.”
But a few years ago, traffic began to slide, and then the slide accelerated. The paper used the Metrics for News dashboard to figure out a better way to cover the race.
“So we decided to apply all of the things we were learning — stakes were low, let’s try to do some different things, just experiment a little bit. And really, that’s how we approached it,” Hulen said. “We had a new editor at the time who had a lot of energy and that was a nice little sandbox to play around.
“What he did was go back and look at previous years’ coverage and just what of the basic metrics seemed to perform best. It was pretty broad strokes: pageviews, users, just try to see what kind of coverage people were more likely to be looking at.”
The takeaway was great for the newsroom: Metrics for News data showed that unique content and story angles — precisely the things that reporters preferred over rote coverage — won the audience. Stories with personality and voice significantly outperformed straight news reporting.
“Pro forma didn’t do that well,” Hulen said. “That evolved into something like a strategy — telling the reporter and the editors involved in the coverage that we don’t have to do incremental coverage because everyone else is doing it. We want to do coverage that’s unique, important, and above all, interesting. As somebody said, ‘No boring shit.’ That turned into a motto for their coverage.”
Unleashed, the reporters pitched stories with unique angles, experimented with columns, and had more fun.
“It wasn’t a directive so much as much as permission,” Hulen said, because of what the data (and management) told them: “It’s OK to not do the dutiful, incremental story because everyone else is doing it.”
The results weren’t a total slam dunk — the paper had recently added a paywall, which throttled pageviews to well below the pre-paywall era — “but we saw an uptick in digital subscriptions during that period and a few other things that made us feel like we were on the right track,” Hulen said. It also meant a quick victory in the effort to get journalists interested in and involved with audience data.
Hulen was able to tie the newsroom’s efforts directly back to the paper’s financial success, which was a win in the front office and a signal that the newsroom’s activities could affect the bottom line without compromising anyone’s integrity.
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.”
Unleash curiosity to get journalists working with metrics
In every single case, the journalists and data analysts we consulted said there’s one crucial factor that gets journalists on board with data experiments, and it also happens to be the single most common trait in any newsroom: curiosity.
Experiments begin when someone looks at one data point and says “I don’t understand what’s happening there” or “that’s weird” and begins to form a hypothesis to explain the phenomenon.
But when there is a lot of data, it can be hard to spot anomalies. One good starting point: Ask newsroom teams to find a story or beat that’s doing better than it ought to do.
Social scientists call this “positive deviance,” “bright spotting,” or “outliers.” In newsrooms, it means identifying content that, without any additional resources, is outperforming similar content. Once you find an outlier, the next step is investigation.
It was a stats-loving sports editor at The Dallas Morning News who noticed that Southern Methodist University fans were acting a little weird. There are big college football teams in the area — the Longhorns, the Aggies. Texas A&M’s enrollment is close to 70,000, with a correspondingly huge alumni base. SMU, by comparison, enrolls about 16,000.
It usually takes about 3,000 pageviews for a regular visitor to the Morning News to convert to a subscription, a number that is much-discussed in the newsroom. Pageviews for stories about the relatively tiny SMU were lower than other schools, and the sports desk had begun to focus its coverage on schools that drove traffic.
“Our sports vertical editor at the time was our most metrics-driven person in maybe the entire newsroom,” said Amanda Wilkins, formerly at the Morning News and now a product manager for news tools at McClatchy. “He’s paying attention to everything around conversions. And what we discovered … was that SMU coverage from a pageviews standpoint was at the bottom of the list of colleges we covered, but people were converting on that content at a much higher rate.
“We weren’t doing a lot of coverage on them because pageviews were poor, but they decided to take someone off of the digital producer desk and turn him into an SMU sports writer,” Wilkins said. They asked the new sports writer to focus on one thing only: amping up content to get the SMU fans to the pageview threshold faster.
“It just worked,” Wilkins said. “It’s a small audience but the conversion rates continue to be a lot higher than the rest of colleges. … It worked and we started an SMU newsletter as part of that. It’s a really small audience, but open and click-through rates are over 50 percent for opens and 70 percent for click-throughs.”
So, although they frame it differently, journalists at the Dallas Morning News are aiming at the same targets as journalists at Financial Times in London and Whereby.us in Seattle and Miami: how much time readers are spending with content, and evidence that they’re forming a habit.
Short of mind reading or using a crystal ball to divine future prospects, most of the analysts and strategists we spoke to said that the most powerful predictor for how metrics adoption will go in a newsroom is whether reporters are interested in how their communities experience and respond to journalism.
Newsrooms that are curious about readers, and treat metrics as a sandbox rather than a report card, can keep moving closer to what they really want.
There’s just one more thing they need.
Build a positive feedback loop
If a newsroom wants reporters to learn from experimentation, then the end point of every project is feedback and inspiration.
“The most important part of being an analyst is to take all this data and say, ‘This is what we value as good,’” said Parse.ly’s Kelsey Arendt. “If you’re only reporting on numbers, you’re purely reactionary and you’re not helping people do their jobs really well. Take a step back. Say, ‘Hey, team, this is what we value, this is why it’s important, and shout out to you, shout out to you, too.’”
Arendt was getting at another important point: Celebration is a powerful signal.
Our simplest and favorite question to ask as we were surveying newsrooms for this study was “When do you pop the champagne corks?” For most, the answer was still “when we win awards.” But there is a slow shift toward rewarding metrics victories.
“On a weekly basis, we try to reward good work — something with an engagement score, or someone noticed that our obit numbers seemed to have been undercounted by about a million,” said Erica Smith at The Virginian-Pilot. “The person who caught that, that was a thing we celebrated, and a lot of times that comes with a check for $100 or something.
“We’ve tried to get away from rewarding people with metrics and more about the journalism that they’re doing, but it’s often a combination of that. If you have a crappy story that everybody read, we’re not going to celebrate that the same way.”
More often than not, journalists worry that story-performance data is a scorecard used to make decisions about layoffs, not a tool to help newsrooms.”
Celebrations are, in some ways, a contradiction of how journalists have experienced metrics over the past decade. Many people told us that in any discussion about metrics their newsrooms suffer from data fatigue, choice paralysis and something like fear.
More often than not, we’ve observed, journalists worry that story-performance data is a scorecard used to make decisions about layoffs, not a tool to help newsrooms.
“Are we excited about data as a means of discovery or are we afraid of data as a means of punishment?” asked longtime journalist Jill Nicholson, now director of customer education at Chartbeat. “People are afraid of any concrete thing that might put them on the chopping block. It’s all about the culture. There are some leadership teams that use metrics as a stick to interrogate people. … If your leadership is hammering on about pageviews, seeing these numbers can stress you out.”
Several interview subjects also expressed the concern that publishers and managers are more interested in big traffic than in good storytelling. None of these journalists was averse to big audiences. But they were afraid that a relentless focus on high-traffic content would supplant crucial but less enticing beats, like local government.
Celebrate successes and analyze failure in a way that makes it a natural part of experimenting with metrics, rather than a statement about the experimenter’s quality as a journalist.”
Publishers and newsroom leaders who want their journalists to fall in love with metrics can get their teams on board if they respect those fears, and provide a meaningful response to them.
At NPR and in other newsrooms, an internal newsletter celebrates successes and milestones and analyzes failure in a way that makes it a natural part of experimentation, rather than a statement about the experimenter’s quality as a journalist.
“The format is what we call a dashboard report which looks at all of the different platforms and audience/reach consumption growth over last week and previous eight weeks,” said Dan Frohlich, a digital analyst. “When we have something more in depth, we regularly type that up and deliver that to the entire newsroom. I also have been sitting in the newsroom once a week to give a face to where people could ask questions.”
Notice who’s noticing
NPR’s analytics team doesn’t just measure how external audiences use the news.
Because their feedback to the newsroom and their reporting to leadership takes the form of a newsletter, the analytics team also measures how the newsroom is opening, studying and using their newsletter content — a way for them to do a formative assessment for their own (internal) audience and follow how recipients are engaging not just with analytics, but education about analytics. It also lets them identify the most willing and enthusiastic collaborators in thinking about the marriage of audience data and journalism.
“The weekly emails go out to executives as well,” Frohlich said. “We can see it through MailChimp — who is opening the emails we send, and who is forwarding the email to other people. We also have a monthly meeting on research where we invite most leaders from the organization and leaders from digital media and others so we can track attendance there.”
Jill Nicholson at Chartbeat suggests that organizations pay particular attention to and talk widely about experiments that cross departmental borders.
“I think that alignment across all of those groups is really important,” Nicholson said. “Is your editorial team trying to prioritize the same reader behaviors that your product team is and your marketing team is? Are we rowing in the same direction?”
Six steps to create a metrics-driven newsroom
After interviewing dozens of journalists and analysts, we emerged with a lot of inspiration and a blueprint that can be applied to any newsroom. Although each organization’s path to, and use of, its data was unique, we saw the same six steps repeated by small and under-resourced newsrooms to large, multinational newsrooms.
If your newsroom wants to get savvier about metrics, consider this route:
- Define your organization’s overall goals and key performance indicators. This is your organization’s plan for growth. Share it widely. Encourage people to ask questions about the goals, KPIs and the organization’s health at any point. Example: At Whereby.us, the organization’s goals are expressed in key performance indicators and metrics that each local site sees and discusses on a weekly basis. When KPIs change, everyone gets a high-priority message about it, and management explains what the company learned that triggered the shift.
- Connect organizational goals to newsroom activities. How does your organization really track its progress? There should be no “secret” to success. If everyone in the company is responsible for its health, then every department in the company should know what “healthy” looks like. A newsroom’s performance indicators might look like increasing average time on site, bumping open rates for newsletters, and establishing new products and projects that attract new audiences. Example: Financial Times hired data-savvy journalists to create a newsroom-native data team that regularly reports back on newsroom activities that resulted in a company-wide “win,” helping staff understand how their work plays a role in the FT’s overall success.
- Establish context and stakes for every person. Shifting from the newsroom level to the individual, consider: What is each journalist’s role in the success of the whole organization? What do they need to measure to know if they’re doing a good job? Do they have the tools to do so? A reporter on the city government beat might measure her success by how much time readers spend on her stories, but also whether readers bounce off site after reading a story or if they follow a link to a related story. Another reporter on the business desk might experiment with how person al finance stories perform compared to stories about new businesses or local job trends. Example: Teams at The Virginian-Pilot shifted away from volume metrics — pageviews, number of posts — when the Metrics for News dashboard helped them focus on content that keeps subscribers in the fold.
- Provide coaching, especially at the outset. Person-to-person conversations about how to get started and what to do next are the most effective way to introduce metrics. Example: Chartbeat’s Director of Customer Education Jill Nicholson regularly reminds Chartbeat users that their famous dashboard isn’t a grade — it’s meant to trigger discussions about why the numbers look like they do, and what simple adjustments, like adding links to related stories, can boost time on site and other important, habit-forming behaviors.
- Use dashboards and newsletters to push continuous feedback. Dashboards provide teamwide or companywide information at a glance; newsletters can supplement the numbers by adding context about what’s working as well as ideas and specific recommendations. Example: NPR’s newsletter analyzes metrics victories and emphasizes ideas that can be carried forward, rather than trying to replicate one-off events or viral moments. Again, it often comes down to small changes that editors, reporters and producers can make — but those changes are worth sharing.
- Follow up in person, with face-to-face conversations. Consistent, learning-focused feedback helps journalists adapt and thrive in a metrics environment. Example: At the Dallas Morning News, a sports editor’s question about why Southern Methodist University football fans were subscribing more readily than other fan groups led to the creation of a new, SMU-dedicated reporting position. Follow-up on those numbers, which kept improving, led to the creation of a newsletter with far-above-average open and click-through rates.
As many of our colleagues told us, there is no single strategy or “god metric” because every community is unique and every news organization has unique challenges and goals. These are the closest we can get to universal rules for newsrooms that want to introduce metrics to their daily practice of journalism.
We encourage you to give them a try — and don’t forget the feedback loop; let other journalists know how you’re doing so we can all continue to learn.