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March 13, 2019, 11:17 a.m.
Reporting & Production

How to build a newsroom culture that cares about metrics beyond pageviews

“The most powerful predictor for how metrics adoption will go in a newsroom is whether reporters are interested in how their communities experience and respond to journalism.”

Managing metrics is kind of exactly what a lot of journalists didn’t sign up for. (Statistics? You want me to do math?) But it’s exactly what newsrooms need to improve on.

What stories do readers find most valuable? What kind of content moves readers along the subscription funnel? What signals show that subscribers are adding back to the community? What kind of traffic is meaningful to the organization’s business and editorial goals? As newsrooms try to figure out how to build better trust with their audiences, they’re also grappling with which questions to ask. Hint: A lot of those questions — and some of the answers — are probably lurking somewhere in your analytics dashboard.

A new American Press Institute report from Melody Kramer and Betsy O’Donovan (both former Nieman Fellows) offers some metrics on newsroom metrics, based on interviews with two dozen journalists and data analysts from 20 organizations. One bit to remember:

The newsrooms that are most effective at using metrics are the ones that connect every journalist’s work to the company’s success, and provide teaching and learning resources to understand what’s measured and why, spot opportunities, and celebrate important victories.

Celebrating important victories beyond awards, that is. When O’Donovan and Kramer asked their interviewees how they decide to pop the champagne corks, “when we win awards” was the No. 1 answer.

Here are some examples of key performance indicators used in various types of newsrooms, from the report:

  • The Dallas Morning News, owned by the publicly traded A. H. Belo: The organization overall focuses on conversions to subscription, but individual reporters are tasked with returning visitors and engaged minutes in story KPIs.
  • Whereby.Us, the parent company of local newsletter startups: Newsletters’ total weekly open rate beat out subscriber counts after the company realized “we were seeing that we’re getting more subscribers, but they’re not giving as much value to the product or the community as we think. We’re adding subscribers, but they’re not engaging with the thing we make,” according to cofounder Rebekah Monson.
  • The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, recently acquired by Tribune Publishing: The digital strategy director identified the most valued elements of what each newsroom beat produces, which helped reporters refocus from pageviews to supporting the subscription strategy.
  • My favorite, from the Anchorage Daily News: “No boring shit,” at least when it comes to angles for the annual Iditarod sled-dog race, based on reviewing metrics from the past few years’ coverage. (Musher Pete Kaiser won the Iditarod this morning, FYI.)
  • Quartz’s oh-so-pure metric: “Love. How much are we loved by a certain reader, know what I mean?” said Sari Zeidler, Quartz’s director of growth. “We can see how often people are returning and what journey they’re taking down the funnel, but what we really want to know is do they love us, and how do we impact them? That’s what journalism is about: Did we have an impact on their life? We can know they open an email every day, but I want to better understand who is this person and why do they love us and how do they love us. What makes them so hardcore?”
  • Another tidbit from the report to keep in mind:

    Short of mind reading or using a crystal ball to divine future prospects, most of the analysts and strategists we spoke to said that the most powerful predictor for how metrics adoption will go in a newsroom is whether reporters are interested in how their communities experience and respond to journalism.

    Here’s how Kramer and O’Donovan recommend putting that into action, creating a culture of metrics that drive your newsroom in a — KPI right here — healthy way.

    1. 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…

    2. 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…

    3. 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?…

    4. 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…

    5. 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…

    6. Follow up in person, with face-to-face conversations. Consistent, learning-focused feedback helps journalists adapt and thrive in a metrics environment.

    The full report, with more examples and explanations, is here.

    Illustration by Studio Infografika used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 13, 2019, 11:17 a.m.
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