Interview with Federica Cherubini

How Newsrooms Are Using Analytics to Grow Readership


By   |   March 21st, 2016   |   Reading time: 7 minutes Digital Journalism

We talked to one of the authors of a new Reuters Institute report on analytics in the newsroom about how digital newsrooms are increasingly using audience analytics to direct editorial strategies. 

Mention analytics in five different newsrooms and you’re likely to get five different takes.

Measuring content performance can be a disputed topic at the most progressive of media outlets, with a variety of different metrics and tools available.

That then makes the latest Reuters Institute report,How News Media are Developing and Using Audience Data and Metrics a welcome insight into analytics culture and workflow at major news organisations.

The authors looked at how newsrooms are adapting , and how they’re using new tools, including NewsWhip Spike.

We talked to one of the report’s co-authors, Federica Cherubini, about the findings of the report, which you can read here.

Reuters Institute

How would you sum up the main findings of the report? 

For the Reuters Institute report that I wrote with RISJ Director of Research Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, we spoke to more than 30 senior figures working with analytics in newsrooms across Europe and the United States. Our goal was to understand how news organisations are developing and using audience data and metrics for editorial decision-making.

We found that newsrooms are embracing analytics more and more, but the level of sophistication of their approaches varies significantly. Many organisations still employ a generic or rudimentary approach, which is focused mainly on short-term optimization goals. They often use off-the-shelf tools to help increase day-to-day traffic and reach. In many cases, they don’t go beyond that. Instead, what set aside best practices is the use of what we called editorial analytics – these are aligned with the editorial objectives of the organisation (who you are trying to reach, where) as well as with the organisational imperatives (whether commercial, non-profit, or public service).

We found that a few globally oriented US- and UK-based news organisations are generally ahead, but a few market leaders and new startups in Continental Europe are following closely behind. What these best practice examples have in common is an approach to analytics tailored to their own specific priorities, and a commitment to being data-informed rather than data-driven, e.g. a commitment to using analytics to improve rather than replace editorial expertise in decision-making.

What did you find the benefits were to newsrooms surveyed that were incorporating editorial analytics into their workflows? 

Those who are ahead in the development and use of editorial analytics combine the use of the right tools with the right organisational structures as well as a culture in the Add Gallery newsroom that underpins the use of data and turns it into actionable insights.

In an ever more competitive battle for attention, the use of editorial analytics allows newsrooms to have a clearer picture of their audience, its preferences, what journey an user do for example through the content. Where they arrive from, what do the click on, how they interact with the content, do they share it, do they complete reading/watching the content, where do they go next.

Data empowers newsroom and support the editorial judgement. It allows newsrooms to test hypothesis, experiment, and avoid flying blind. An “old” metric like pageview for example is still relevant in deciding when to publish a piece of content. Editorial analytics play a role in short-term, day-to-day, optimisation but also in long-term planning of coverage, workflow, and staffing for example.

I was very interested in the section about the difficulties of measuring the ‘impact’ of a piece of content online. How are publishers re-thinking how to measure the success of their stories? 

I think defining what good looks like for each organisation is trickier than it seems. Different metrics serve different purposes – it depends what one wants to measure. In order to measure success, defining goals precisely is crucial – then you need to be able to measure them in reliable ways, capturing or accessing relevant data, and you need to be able to benchmarking it. All of this is difficult. 

Alongside metrics that measure reach, as well as engagement (for example time spent has gained favour in recent years as it is considered by some a better proxy to quality), it has become more common to hear references to impact. Jonah Peretti, the founder of BuzzFeed, a site often associated with entertainment rather than hard news, said, in an interview with the Guardian’s media editor Jane Martinson that the primary thing BuzzFeed looks for with news is impact, not traffic.

The question is how to measure impact and so far there is no agreement on how to do that effectively. At the moment the work on effective metrics for the impact of journalism is led by non-profits, philanthropists, and public media in the United States. NPR, with a grant from the Knight Foundation, is currently working on building a tool, Carebot, that aims to measure whether people really cared about content they consumed. The Media Impact Project at the University of Southern California has funds from amongst others the Gates Foundation to develop better ways of measuring the public impact of journalism.

Many of the publishers surveyed showed that they were using a diverse range of tools, or had developed their own. In talking to respondents, did you get a sense of how newsrooms are adapting to digital tools?  

There is no shortage of tools at the moment to measure and gather audience data. The study found however that good analytics are as much about organisation and culture as they are about tools. What matter is whether the newsroom has a clearly structured approach to using analytics (organisation), whether the newsroom as a whole, including both senior editors and rank-and-file journalists, is routinely and willingly using analytics and data as part of their editorial decision-making (culture), and of course whether they use the best available technologies and techniques (tools). There is much more to editorial analytics than big screens with numbers that go up and down.

Reuters Institute Report

All three components are necessary parts of this, and none of them can substitute directly for one another. Tools are of course the first step. But even with the best-available tools and a strong analytics team, a newsrooms that doesn’t underpin those with a culture of data use, it will fail to realise its full potential. Equally, a newsroom can have good tools and a culture of data, but with no in-house analytics expertise it will struggle to do in-depth analysis and use analytics systematically.

How can we expect to see editorial analytics develop in the newsroom, and what do you think newsrooms should be doing to make more effective use of the analytics? 

Newsrooms should be strategic in deciding what metrics matter most for them, in what context and why – they should know what they are trying to achieve. They should tailor their approach to who they are and what they’re trying to do. Identify your key objectives, the best available metrics for them, and ways you can learn from and act on these metrics.

Our research suggests that you need to have all three components mentioned above – tools, organisation and culture – in place to make analytics work. I also think it’s important for everyone involved with data to understand the strengths, as well as the weaknesses, of the day they are looking at.

Best practices combine a short-term day-to-day strategy with long-term goals. It’s important to empower the newsroom through the use of data, but without mystifying the numbers and without letting them dictate what you do. Data should be used to support and empower editorial judgement. Flying blind is a luxury that news organisations can’t afford anymore. Because editorial analytics are in constant evolution, it’s also important for journalists to participate in their future developments, otherwise they will continue to be entirely shaped by advertising, commercial, and technological priorities with little consideration of journalism.

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