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.