Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

What metrics and outcomes funders ask for from news organizations

Another issue in the nonprofit news landscape is about metrics, or proof that work being underwritten is reaching an audience or perhaps having even more of an impact — such as changing public attitudes on an issue.

The question of metrics is hardly new. Commercial news organizations for years have used some numbers to establish reach with advertisers — ratings in television, demographic data about audiences, circulation and demographics for magazines and newspapers.

After grants are made and the work is produced, how do funders and news organizations determine success in the nonprofit arena? And does it go beyond establishing reach to trying to prove specific impacts, such as changing minds?

The answer is most funders ask for reach. Some, but not all, ask for proof of impact.

In general, funders have borrowed concepts from commercial business and management consulting to think about this and have begun to ask for a variety items to use in measuring their investments.

Most funders surveyed, about two-thirds, request some kind of metric, but not all ask for the same thing.

The most common requests by funders are for basic information on web traffic or social media activity. It is also fairly common for funders to ask for evidence of direct impact, such as formal hearings or new legislation.

A smaller number of funders, around 30 percent, look for numbers on audience comments, evidence of changes in public opinion or awareness of a topic, or information on distribution partners or other media use. About a quarter are interested in official responses or editorials.

What is requested Percent of funders
Social media numbers or activity 44%
Web traffic, such as page views, visitors, time spent, etc. 40%
Audience comments or audience actions taken 30%
Web traffic of partners who distributed the work 29%
Direct impact from the work, such as formal hearings, laws changed or charges filed 40%
Number of other media organizations that used or cited the work 35%
Evidence of changes in awareness or knowledge of a topic 35%
Evidence of changes in attitudes or perceptions about an issue or topic 32%
Editorials written or other journalistic activities that followed the work 25%
Responses from officials to the reporting 24%
Don’t ask for/provide metrics 14%

Data Source: Surveys conducted 2015. Questions: Funders — ”What, if any, metrics do you typically ask media grantees to provide to evaluate your grantmaking?" (Please check all that apply). Nonprofit Media- “Please indicate all metrics that you provide to funders.” Commercial media — “Please indicate all metrics that you have provided either to funders or nonprofit partners.”

American Press Institute

When we asked nonprofit news organizations, as opposed to funders, what metrics they actually provide — the numbers were higher.

The majority, nearly 60 percent, of nonprofit news organizations said they provide funders with both web and social media analytics. About two-thirds said they provide web traffic information such as pageviews, visitors and time spent. Roughly 6 in 10 said they provide social media numbers or activity. And more than half said they provide numbers on other organizations who reference their work.

Many nonprofit news organizations also supply qualitative metrics. Half said they provide examples of direct impact from their work, i.e. formal hearings, laws changed or charges filed.

Four in 10 said they provide “evidence of changes in awareness or knowledge of an issue or topic.” About the same number say they point to responses from officials to the reporting. Nearly 4 in 10 point to “editorials written or other journalistic activities” that followed the work, and the same number point to audience comments or “other audience actions taken.”

Only three of the 72 nonprofit news organization surveyed said that as a matter of policy they don’t provide any metrics to funders.

What is provided to funders Nonprofit media Commercial media
Web traffic, such as page views, visitors, time spent, etc. 65% 28%
Social media numbers or activity 59% 17%
Audience comments or audience actions taken 37% 20%
Web traffic of partners who distributed the work 34% 3%
Number of other media organizations that used or cited the work 55% 9%
Direct impact from the work, such as formal hearings, laws changed or charges filed 50% 14%
Evidence of changes in awareness or knowledge of a topic 43% 11%
Responses from officials to the reporting 41% 16%
Editorials written or other journalistic activities that followed the work 38% 16%
Evidence of changes in attitudes or perceptions about an issue or topic 32% 4%
Don’t ask provide metrics 3% 20%
Haven’t been asked for metrics 2% 7%

Data Source: Surveys conducted 2015. Nonprofit Media- “Please indicate all metrics that you provide to funders.” Commercial media — “Please indicate all metrics that you have provided either to funders or nonprofit partners.”

American Press Institute

Commercial news organizations surveyed were less inclined to provide metrics of any type.

Less than 30 percent, for instance, said they have provided web traffic information such as pageviews, visitors and time spent (about half the level reported by nonprofit media). Less than 20 percent said they provided information on social media activity.

Even fewer commercial media surveyed said they provided qualitative information. Fourteen percent, for instance, provided information on direct impact from the work, i.e. formal hearings, laws changed or charges filed (compared to half for nonprofit media). A similar number said they provided evidence of responses from officials to the reporting and “editorials written or other journalistic activities” that followed the work.

More for-profit news outlets than nonprofit news organizations said they don’t provide metrics as a matter of policy. Twenty percent they have not shared information with partners because of their policies.

Why are commercial media less inclined to provide metrics of reach and impact than nonprofit media. There are several potential explanations. Beyond policy, one another is tradition. Legacy media did not have to prove reach at the story level before and are not really organized to do so now, though online they could.

Several organizations surveyed offered that metrics hadn’t been requested. “We haven’t but would be open to some of these,” said the representative of a city newspaper.

Another explanation is that many of these commercial outlets are working with media partners, not with funders. In all, indeed, less than half of the commercial news media surveyed have relationships with foundations directly. One local digital news organization connection with the nonprofit world currently only involves internships.  They do not provide metrics: “We have not applied for any grants.”

Finally, the other reason is probably scale. These arrangements with either funders or partners are relatively small activity for commercial media.

Need to Know newsletter

The smart way to start your day

Each morning we scour the web for fresh useful insights in our Need to Know newsletter. Sign up below.

Featured topics

Go deeper on…

Dive deep on everything we produce about these key topics.

Strategy Studies

The best practices for innovation within news organizations

This Strategy Study presents examples and insights about journalism innovation, offering actionable advice and methods to move your journalism and business forward.