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June 19, 2012, 10:08 a.m.
Waveform mines social media for real-time analytics for news

The Knight News Challenge winner uses Twitter and Facebook to help newsrooms track their own — and competitors’ — stories.

What drives an online journalist crazy? Not knowing why a story failed to get good traffic. What’s worse? Wondering why a similar story from a competitor seemed to set the Internet on fire. It’s a common scenario in a competitive media world where attention, as measured through pageviews and social mentions, can be a barometer of success. The standard analytics most companies use only measure their own traffic. wants to broaden that by providing journalists with a real-time social engagement tracker that can compare you and your peers.

A winner in the 2012 Knight News Challenge, will use data from Facebook and Twitter to help newsrooms track the life of stories, find trends, and shape coverage decisions. The project was created by Mohamed Nanabhay, former head of online for Al Jazeera English, and Haroon Meer, the founder of Thinkst. is receiving Knight’s money as a venture capital investment of undisclosed size rather than as a grant; the company plans to use the funding to build out the tool and prepare it for use in newsrooms.

Nanabhay said the idea for began in January 2011 as the Arab Spring was in its early stages. Al Jazeera English had just published extensive reporting on leaked documents covering a decade of negotiations between Israel and Palestine. The Palestine Papers was a tentpole investigation; they played it big, with a large presence on the website and on the air.

“On the 25th of January, we were investing all these resources into putting out this story — we thought it would be the biggest story of the year for us,” Nanabhay said. “But I noticed in real time, because of Chartbeat, the audience was attracted to the Egypt story.” As a result, Nanabhay reconfigured the Al Jazeera English homepage by promoting stories on Egypt. As Al Jazeera English covered the rest of the Arab Spring, a similar pattern of homepage adjustments played out.

“Ultimately, what we really want to do is bring social clarity into newsrooms”

What does is build a formal process to treat social media as an indicator of audience interest. The system can monitor and graph stories for a news site and several of its competitors — be they geographic or thematic — over a period time that can range from minutes to hours and weeks. Stories are given a score that factors in tweets and Facebook likes, comments, and shares. Since leverages data from pre-existing social platforms, it fit well with the networks theme that was emphasized in this round of the News Challenge.

“Ultimately, what we really want to do is bring social clarity into newsrooms and give journalists clarity,” he said. “You’ve got all these disparate social networks, all this activity going on. But I think a lot of analytics tools out there are not easy for journalists to use.”

The use of analytics has changed both the business and editorial side of journalism. Things like unique visitors, time-on-site and clickthru rates are factors when deciding the architecture of a news site. is entering a space where tools like Chartbeat and Omniture are already part of a newsroom. The thing that might set apart is the ability to track competitors numbers against your own. When Al Jazeera English is onto the same story as the BBC, the Guardian, and CNN, editors at AJE would be able to track their competitors to see when they published and how their stories spread over time. would also allow media companies to see which topics and people are trending. While social mentions may not be the perfect weapon for journalism counterintelligence, it could provide newsrooms with information to better position their work to reach more eyeballs.

Mohamed NanabheyAs Nanabhay sees it, can supply additional information to influence editorial decisions — and at a finer grain than simply following Google search trends. It would also provide a method to explain why older stories unexpectedly find new life. “We’re in a time when newsroom budgets are stretched — most newsrooms I know are under-resourced,” he said. “Just knowing where the audience is going can help those editors use their resources better.”

Of course, editors have to be willing to use analytics in making decisions, and that can be a tricky question for some news outlets. Nanabhay said he understands the fear of giving the audience power over story planning, the fear of chasing pageviews, where Justin Bieber gets more prominence than Syria, he said. Analytics, and in particular, are not meant to replace editors, but instead to help them understand their audience and the ways news moves online. The editor’s prerogative remains intact, it’s just aided by more information, Nanabhay said. “We just want to close that loop between the audience and journalists,” Nanabhay said.

Image by Altemark used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 19, 2012, 10:08 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Knight News Challenge 2012
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