Big screens with real-time traffic data have become ubiquitous in newsrooms. They illustrate how news organizations are becoming more and more interested in tracking audience behavior, as data-informed approaches to decision making previously associated with popular sites like BuzzFeed, Gawker, and The Huffington Post are increasingly central to editorial decision making at upmarket brands like The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, and Quartz.
How newsrooms use analytics, however varies significantly. Some organizations are very good at making sense of numbers. But most are still only beginning to scratch the surface of what analytics can do for newsrooms.
For a new Reuters Institute Report, we have interviewed more than 30 people working across digital startups, newspapers, and broadcasters — people with job titles that were unknown a few years ago, like audience editor, growth editor, audience development editor, or audience engagement editor.
Our research shows that only a few news organizations have developed what we call “editorial analytics” — approaches to analytics that move beyond generic use of off-the-shelf tools and techniques and develop a tailored approach to analytics aligned with the specific editorial priorities and organizational imperatives of a particular news organization.
This is important, because analytics can be about more than having a big screen with numbers that go up and down — and analytics should be about more than short-term optimization of pageviews and unique users based on tweaking of article placement, headlines, and pictures used.
Editorial analytics differ from more rudimentary and generic approaches in three ways.
What sets best practice approaches to analytics apart is thus not that they have big screens with numbers on them in the newsroom, but that they know how to make sense of numbers and act on those insights.This is about developing user-friendly interfaces that can help “democratize” data (like The Guardian’s bespoke dashboard Ophan) or about developing clear indicators for what the organization considers success (like Die Welt’s “article score”). It is also about being willing to actually use insights gained from analytics to make editorial decisions, like reorganizing the newsroom at the Financial Times or launching new products at The Economist.
Our research suggests that a small number of English-language news organizations in the U.S. and the U.K. lead the way when it comes to analytics. But market leaders and new startups across Europe are not far behind.
The importance of analytics at small startups like Quartz, De Correspondent, and Ze.tt illustrates that sophisticated use of analytics is not about how many resources a newsroom has, but about how those resources are allocated.
Many legacy organizations with far larger newsrooms use far more primitive analytics than these small startups. Across all markets, including the U.S. and the U.K., most legacy media lag behind best practice and stick to rudimentary and generic forms of analytics.
This is important for two reasons. First, all the best practice examples we examine in the report underline that good analytics is at least as much about organization and culture as it is about tools and technology. For newsrooms to make more data-informed decisions and on that basis more effectively reach their audience, they need to develop a culture of data where rank and file journalists and senior editors — not just the audience team — know how to make sense of numbers and how to act on them.
Second, it’s important because analytics will continue to evolve, and journalists need to be part of this development if we are to develop metrics that effectively underpin editorial priorities.
If journalists do not engage, the development of data, metrics, and analytics will continue to be entirely shaped by advertising, commercial, and technological priorities, with little consideration of editorial priorities.
As the most sophisticated audience development editors and data analysts are the first to underline, editorial analytics are not perfect. The data never tells the full story, and even the best approaches still face a range of data-quality and data-access issues. Good analytics is therefore about complementing editorial judgment with analysis of the best available quantitative audience data, not about introducing a tyranny of numbers.
Editorial analytics represent a significant improvement in news organizations’ capacity to understand the media environment in which they operate and an important shift from a time in which newsrooms had far less analytic capability than other parts of their organization.
Most importantly, editorial analytics help journalists reach people. Newsrooms should embrace that, and develop the tools, organization, and culture necessary for better understanding and reaching their audience. Without this, they risk losing out in the ever-more intense competition for attention.
Federica Cherubini is an Italian journalist and editorial researcher based in London. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is director of research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and serves as editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Press/Politics.