This month we’ve seen the demise of the Independent in print form and the launch of Facebook Instant Articles. There’s a lot of change going on with the way our news is being written and distributed. Editorial analytics have never been so important, so we were pleased to have a chat about this with Adam Tinworth, a journalist-turned-digital-consultant and visiting lecturer on City University’s Interactive Journalism MA.
Adam, the term ‘editorial analytics’ is one we hear a lot of at the moment, what does it mean to you?
Well, for me it’s the fundamental differentiator between print and digital. In print we never knew what readers were reading. Unless you sell a little drone that hovers over people’s shoulders as they’re reading, you can’t tell. A couple of places I’ve worked with have actually done some research where they’ve got permission to access people’s online accounts and so they see what they’ve read. They then do a classic market research interview with them about what they say they’ve read. The two don’t match up very well!
Unless you sell a little drone that hovers over people’s shoulders as they’re reading, you can’t tell
We’ve come through this period where we were basically working in the dark. In print we understood when the whole package – the newspaper or the magazine or whatever – was doing well because either it was selling or it wasn’t, but now we’ve moved into a place where we can understand at a very granular level what content is succeeding and what isn’t.
Is the key point that, before, we understood how it performed ‘as a whole’? We’re now looking more at success on an article-by-article basis, aren’t we?
You know, bizarrely, one of the things I find hardest to get journalists to think seriously about is to look at the stuff that’s not working and then wondering, ‘can it be made to work or do we just need to stop doing this?’ I had this problem when I was working with one of our national newspapers. There was one set of content that was coming over from print that was literally getting single digit readership.
Yeah! Unless you can persuade me that those are six incredibly valued and useful customers, it wasn’t even worth the time of an intern to transfer it over from print. Even so they found it very hard to let go of the idea of doing that material.
You mean editors were clinging to a kind of ‘golden age’ of journalism?
I think inside the industry we have a tendency to think that if we get an exclusive, the great gods of journalism will bless us from on high, but the reality is that readers don’t necessarily care about the features or the scoops or all the things that we, as journalists, get obsessed about.
Journalism is not an abstract art; it’s part of a business and it exists for the reader. If we’re not finding stuff that is useful or interesting to that audience then we are failing as journalists. So we need to find a way of informing that judgement and we can do that with analytics.
Does this fundamentally change the editorial role?
It doesn’t affect the editorial gut instinct – whether or not a story is worth running – but what it allows you to do is to test that instinct and refine it, because sometimes you’re wrong. Your instinct might tell you something is a good story, but you might run it and find you get bugger-all traffic or bugger-all dwell time. At this point, if you’re not using analytics to their full potential you could go, ‘well, I was wrong’, but that would be a shame.
“Analytics are the beginning of wisdom, not the end of it”
We should be asking: did we sell it right? Did we write it right? Did we communicate the value of the story to people well? Did we promote it at the right time? Did we promote it at the right place? All of those sorts of things need to be addressed first. Yes, you might work your way through all of those things and find that actually the reader just didn’t give a damn, at which point you might need to reassess or learn or refine your editorial judgement. But conversely we need to still maintain a role for editorial judgement, otherwise you’ll never surprise and delight the reader: because then you’re just pandering to the obvious. Analytics are the beginning of wisdom, not the end of it.
It must be quite a skill for editors to be able to use these new tools to support their judgement.
Yeah, and in all honesty this is one reason why some of the big organizations now have people supporting the analytics team, because – for the ones with a traditional journalistic background – it’s not necessarily a skill they have.
They might be granted a report that came from the analytics team once a month. Well, that’s essentially useless – that’s judging you on something you don’t have access to and can’t learn from. People need to be given the tools to change things as they go.
Does this mean editors and journalists need to have more of a say in what kind of analytics they’re using?
Absolutely. Knowing what decisions are made when analytics packages are set is critical. Not having that initial proper consultation is how and why you find yourself with a system that’s been in place for five years but that’s only really useful for the Boards as a measurement of success or failure. What I tend to find is that the more widespread analytics are through an organization, the more sophisticated they are about using them.
So things are getting more complex in the world of editorial analytics?
Well, most people who are thinking about analytics now are still thinking about it in terms of hits, rather than specific editorial analytics. They might be thinking about time on site and time on page if you’re lucky, but there’s not widespread use of anything beyond that yet in my experience.
Is there anything in particular that the editorial teams are doing wrong at this point?
Other than obsessing about hits? I think that fundamentally there are a couple of things. Not aligning your analytics thinking to your business model is a key one. For the paywalls and subscription sites, what you should care about is either what your paid subscribers are doing or how well you’re converting people from free content to subscription. In other words: what sort of free content works well for subscribing? But for free sites, it’s knowing what sort of stuff is getting the traffic that is valuable. These questions don’t have to be central to what you’re doing, but they need to be in your mind, because if you’re not paying attention to that stuff everything else falls away.
If you get the right alignment of metrics, audience and business model and you do it in a sophisticated way, everything else flows from that.
And can editorial analytics serve journalists as well?
We’ve moved from an era where the scarce resource for journalists was paper – you know, you were limited by space. There’s only so much stuff you could run. But, on the other hand, you had to write enough to fill that space. Now the scarce resource for journalists is time, because potentially we have an infinite amount of space that we could fill on the web.
Analytics are a useful tool to ensure we are using our time well to serve the audience that we are trying to reach. Unless we use that to inform our decision making, we are not taking full advantage of digital.
And we’re in danger of chasing those six page views?
Posted with big thanks to Adam Tinworth. To keep in touch with his musings on the digital editorial industry, be sure to bookmark the wonderful One Man and His Blog.