The use of data and analytics to guide newsroom behaviour has evolved significantly during the past year.
Analytics are the instruments used to shed light on users’ behaviour and help newsrooms understand how their content travels, on and off-site. In 2014, the focus was on the search for a “gold metric” to help “read” audience behaviours. Large live-screens erected around newsrooms underlined the importance of pageviews, “attention minutes,” and time spent by people on content. And debates continued – on and offline – about the ethics of a metrics-driven newsroom.
Fast forward to 2015 and the processes have evolved considerably: pioneering newsrooms have now tasked a person or team with the responsibility of developing and growing audiences and integrating them into their editorial operations. Their focus is on joining the dots between the “how and when” of audience content consumption, to the newsroom’s workflows, and the role the numbers play in editorial decisions.
New roles have emerged with titles such as Audience Development Editor, Audience Engagement Editor and even Growth Editor.
Those news organisations making space for audience development teams on the editorial floor consider the challenge as no longer just to produce content but to make sure that their content gets to the audience. The Audience Development Editor or team, often strategically positioned alongside the social and engagement teams, look at what, how, and when the audience consume the content. They use a data-driven approach to maximise the reach of the journalism.
The role of the audience development team
While approaches might differ slightly, the main task of the Audience Development Editor is to help the newsroom grow the audience and deepen reader engagement by using data and analytics to gain a stronger understanding of how people consume, share and discuss their content.
One of the best examples is at the Guardian. Executive Editor Digital Aron Pilhofer told the MediaBriefing:
“Instead of doing things the way we do it now, which is some variation of publish and pray, we want to be a little more data driven about the way we do pretty much everything from structure of the newsroom to content itself. […] The goal of this is to find ways of being a lot smarter about how we publish, when we publish, what we publish, the formats we publish, what tools we use. So we may want to do something creative online around a particular event, and looking at the audience we are trying to target, it might dictate a completely different strategy than it would an investigative piece."
To do this, the Guardian's Audience Editor, Chris Moran, relies on Ophan, an in-house analytics platform developed during an internal hackday.
The Guardian's in-house analytics tool
Six years ago, Moran's job as Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) editor was "mainly focused on search and the idea was that [The Guardian] wanted someone with editorial experience to instigate good practices in the newsroom, working within editorial to find the widest possible audience for our content," he told the World Editors Forum. What emerged swiftly, though, was the difficulty of actually doing the job properly. Moran is, in his own words, "not
a natural analyst" and he was finding that the data that was available at the time was really hard to understand. The process was also very slow. Then at an internal hackday, with Director of architecture Graham Tackley, they tried to solve Moran's problems and Ophan was born. Tackley, the "genius behind it" and Moran, as product manager, created a tool around the needs of the job: Ophan "grew in response to problems that we generally had [with getting a grasp on the data]," Moran said. "...what Graham and I managed to do is – by creating a tool we changed the culture of the newsroom."
"Lots of people ask us why we bothered to build a tool in-house and why is it any different to Chartbeat? And they are good questions because actually if you look at Chartbeat and Parse.ly, they are both brilliant tools, which we are big fans of and we think they are incredibly clever, but I guess the key thing is we didn't plan to build Ophan. It was purely organic, and really what happened is that I was finding it so useful that I realised it could be useful to everyone else [in the newsroom]," Moran explained.
Ophan is browser-based and it's accessible – even on mobile - by all staff who are only required, when they first log in, to provide their Guardian email and password.
Ophan provides Guardian staff with different sets of data based on different metrics that break down by geographic areas, country or even city.
Through Ophan, any reporter can see how her/his article is performing with graphs showing minute-by-minute pageviews, referral traffic, whether it has been pushed through the paper's social media account, where it is being read, alongside graphs about social shares and data linked to "attention time" – such as how long people stay on the page. Moran underlined how Ophan teaches them what works in different environments, and where to focus their attention and energies in terms of what to tweak.
"We try to make sure that all the metrics in there are either actionable or are really interesting to journalists and we want to find the easiest way for it to be understandable by journalists," Moran added. Every morning, Moran writes a long, descriptive email to the entire newsroom about how they performed the day before.
He suggests that small newsrooms can also adopt this approach: "(Start by writing) an email every morning saying: yesterday was good because of this and that, and these are a couple of interesting things that happened. Tell people they did well, have an open conversation within the newsroom about failure. There is a massive fear in all organisations to say that [something] didn't do well. There's probably a reason why something didn't do well, so let's try to find out why and let's change it. Promote a conversation and change the newsroom culture."
We could say that what Moran, his team and Ophan do is a form of translation – translating numbers and data into bits that are easily understandable to every- one in the newsroom. "What we try to encourage is experimentation, we are never too afraid to try things and change them when we get feedback. (...) Ophan is a learning tool."
The Guardian also has the equivalent of audience editor roles at its international outposts – Guardian US and Guardian Australia. Moran and his team oversee every piece of content before it's published, they are in constant communications with the subeditors and they will offer some advice. "We choose to value subeditors' expertise and that of the person who wrote the article, so we mainly offer advice on tweaking the headline for search, for example."
The impact of analytics on newsroom workflows
So, how is the newsroom affected by the emergence of audience development teams and the increasingly predominant role played by analytics? Debate continues about whether reporters should have access to real-time information about how people are engaging with their content.
Focusing on audience growth is not about distributing big screens with numbers and graphs throughout the newsroom and then obsessing about performance. It has more to do with changing the newsroom culture to grow awareness that hitting the “publish” key is not the end of the game. As Chris Moran underlined, the goal is to make sure the great quality content The Guardian produces gets the widest possible reach.
Much criticism has been directed at the sort of metrics fixation that leads to clickbait, but Moran counters this: “We use pageviews and there is a lot of negativity around pageviews as metrics, which constantly astonishes me because we all know what it means, we know that you can write a piece of total crap and get lots and lots of views. There are a lot of people that say that if you use pageviews then you encourage clickbait, [but] I don’t accept or recognise that argument. I think that’s really weak. If you honestly think that using pageviews is going to change your editorial standards, then you’ll need to toughen up your editorial standards.”
The role of analytics in the newsroom and the way they can be used varies. Martin Ashplant, Digital Director at City AM, summarised it during Journalism.co.uk’s news:rewired conference in London in February. “Analytics can provide immediate insight and make well-read stories do better, or in longer term trends they allow you to prove what works and what doesn’t, and they allow you to reward success.”
“At City AM reporters get an email telling them how many comments, hits, interactions their articles get,” Ashplant continued. “They’re given a score for their success, it’s crude, but it works for us.”
Stijn Debrouwere and slow analytics
But the point of analytics in the newsroom is not about the tools, it’s about the work- flow, freelance analytics expert and a former Knight-Mozilla fellow, Stijn Debrouwere says.
“We are all familiar with the power of data. Data has the opportunity to teach us stuff we didn’t know before [but] one of the problems [it creates] is noise. With the real-time analytics you see an article taking off but what does that mean? Is there data there, or is it just noise?” Debrouwere asked during the same news:rewired panel.
The degree of reactivity to analytics in the newsroom also varies. “Most newsrooms don’t have a full capability to react to data, they just look at the data but do nothing with them. You have to have a workflow around analytics. We have a lot of tools, we think we have all we need and we stop asking the bigger questions, starting with ‘Why did it work?’”
The risk is placing too much focus on what is the best tool, or the right metric and losing the perspective of the bigger picture, which is really trying to understand the meaning behind the data. Debrouwere suggested a simple, low-tech, three-step workflow any newsroom should follow to gain valuable insights from data:
● First, the debrief. Lots of newsrooms have the daily email going to reporters with analytics, but the most common scenario is that they looked at the numbers and move on. How often do they actually try to figure out why that worked looking at the story through the numbers?
● Second, the audit. “Don’t just look at your numbers from last week or last month but from all of 2014.” He suggested looking through the content and figuring out how many articles have dead links or haven’t been promoted adequately.
● Third, the checklist. “If you do find out that you’re not promoting your articles on social media enough, if you do find out that you have no internal links in your articles, there is an easy way to fix it and it’s called a checklist,” he said.
After an attentive audit, newsrooms should be able to adjust their workflow and codify potential improvements to be sure you can actually improve, Debrouwere suggested. “It’s such a waste of time when you spend so much time working on an article and it ends up in a black hole.”
The evergreen metrics debate
The value of pageviews compared to “engaged time,” and to social media metrics is still being debated in mid-2015.
As Mathew Ingram wrote on Gigaom: “One of the great ironies of the online media business is that there are more ways to measure reader activity than there have probably ever been in the history of human communication — pageviews, unique visitors, time spent, clickthroughs, etc. — but no one can seem to agree on which measure accurately reflects the value that con- tent creates. It’s like quantum mechanics: Our tools have never been better, but the thing we are trying to measure still slips from our grasp.”
Upworthy’s Editorial Director, Amy O’Leary, told the World Editors Forum: “I think that amongst the most sophisticated thinkers about data and audience development right now, no one believes that there is a single current metric that is effective to grow an audience. It’s a number of different factors. Is the content reaching the right group of people? Are they spending time with it? Do they find enough value in it to share it? There are a number of different metrics, and I don’t think anyone who’s really deeply working with audience data would think that paying attention to a single metric is the solution to the puzzle.”
Leading analytics player Chartbeat has expanded its mission exponentially beyond tracking Web traffic. Instead of simply monitoring journalism, Chartbeat wants to save it. CEO Tony Haile told Columbia Journalism Review that he explains the company’s singular mission to every new employee like this: “Twenty years from now, the journalist that wants to investi- gate the corrupt politician actually has the means to do so. As in: There is enough money to invest in that person to do that job.”
Can a metric – or even a combination of metrics – help find a sustainable business model to support professional journalism? The jury is still out.
Trends in Newsrooms 2015
This case study appears in the World Editors Forum's Trends in Newsrooms 2015, which is free for members to download. Read our previous #TrendsinNewsrooms 2015 blog series:
- Gaming the news
- Source protection erosion: a global case study on the rising threat to investigative journalism
- The rise of the robots