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Think audiences, not just metrics

“2014 is the year that newsrooms will begin to think of analytics as a way to increase the quality of their readership, not just the quantity.”

There’s no doubt that data-driven newsrooms are in vogue. Editors are increasingly glued to Chartbeat; social savant Neetzan Zimmerman is enjoying Nate Silveresque fame; and a Cold War-esque battle for supremacy in terms of total “uniques” rages on.

james-robinsonBut this obsession with scale obscures the real opportunity for news organizations: using analytics to better understand their core audiences, no matter how large or small, and to develop meaningful relationships with them. In other words, 2014 is the year that newsrooms will begin to think of analytics as a way to increase the quality of their readership, not just the quantity.

This shift in focus is starting to happen at subscription properties, where user-level insights from the business side have inspired editors to think about how concepts like audience segmentation, multivariate testing, and propensity modeling can be applied in the service of their journalistic mission.

But for all types of newsrooms, developing a more qualitative understanding of audiences will be increasingly important. As publishers continue to invest in longform journalism and experiment with new types of storytelling, questions will naturally arise about the ways in which people actually read and engage with these pieces, beyond the feel-good tally of how many visitors they attract. (Likewise, the true value of social media may not be best quantified by a simple accounting of referral traffic.) And editors are beginning to realize that these relationships are a two-way street — not just for publishing out, but as an important tool for sourcing stories as well.

Even though an analyst’s technical toolkit has advanced significantly in recent years, useful audience insights still do not come prepackaged in a shrink-wrapped box. It’s easy to blame veteran editors for not “getting” advanced quantitative techniques or concepts — actually, few people do — but even the smartest data scientists often lack an intuitive understanding of what makes newsrooms tick. If analysts can start thinking like journalists — and vice versa — the rewards will be incalculable.

James Robinson is director of news analytics at The New York Times.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20