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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.

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