Journalists have a lot to worry about. Not only are newsrooms – of all sizes – closing their doors at an alarming rate, but across newsrooms in general there’s an ever-present niggle that there’s a hard focus on the bottom line. Content has to prove its worth. Analytics and journalists might not have always seemed like natural bedfellows, but ignore them now at your peril.
Journalists’ workflows have evolved (and if they haven’t, they should)
There’s a workflow which is embedded at a cellular level in journalists: research, write, rewrite, publish. It’s hardly a groundbreaking observation, but it’s pretty sound.
It’s the process we’ve adhered to since we wrote our first essays at school; how we approached papers at college and J-school (admittedly sometimes without as much attention to stage three as we might care to admit), and it’s what we do without thinking as professional writers.
We’ve spent years and years honing our writing skills so what we produce is clear, succinct and compelling. If we take Malcolm Gladwell’s measure of expertise – those 10,000 hours – we’re well into overtime.
But what of the other facet to writing? What about feedback?
At school and college, comments and remarks made by faculty were the very things which refined our abilities and tightened our prose. We knew the worth of an ‘A’ grade and understood what a ‘B’ grade level paper lacked in comparison.
In the newsroom, we have the editorial hand, but there’s something more valuable on offer too, and it’s something that isn’t as widespread as might seem logical.
It is, in short, understanding how the reading public is consuming what we write.
Read the comments
Some news organizations are embracing public engagement with content. The Washington Posts’s Read These Comments is a Friday roundup of the best reader comments from that week and makes for fascinating reading anyhow – but also serves as a channel betwixt writer and reader. Last year The Economist started looking into how to better use those comments section on its own pages. Meanwhile in Denmark Zetland embrace comments on their articles and pride themselves on the fact that they are articulate and respectful. Writers are aware of these interactions – and often respond themselves.
So, what does this tell us? Well, it tells us that publications value engagement – even if they’re not quite sure how to frame it. In the States organisations like Hearken and platforms like Gather seek to engage readers in the ‘research’ part of the the workflow. Social journalism – such as the program taught at CUNY in New York City – also puts an emphasis on communities first. It’s beneficial for newspapers to take this into consideration: where readers feel invested in the content, they’re more likely to feel invested in the publication too.
So that’s an argument for publications taking an interest, but what about journalists on an individual level?
Engagement is one thing, but it relies on trust. You don’t have to go far to find the latest figures showing the depressingly low levels of trust in the profession at the moment, and – as critics of the ‘MSM’ might say, much of that is because there’s a perception that writers are somehow detached from reality – and therefore their readers.
But, journalists have egos. We do, don’t we? It would be rare to find a writer who cared not a jot if their article was read or unread. Journalism’s very raison d’etre is to communicate, so we need to know that we’re being appreciated.
In print, there was the rush of seeing your article on the newsstands and its placement in the paper – was it above the fold?
In digital? Well, that’s been a tricky one to find a correlating barometer of success. Those enormous screens with the real-time numbers of page views might have been commonplace in newsrooms (and, in many still are), but the sector is starting to shun them, and rightly so.
At Sueddeutche Zeitung in Munich, they’ve dispelled with real time altogether, believing it to be a unnecessary distraction from important work. Dean Baquet, at the New York Times, had this to say in a recent BBC documentary ‘Reporting Trump’s First Year: The Fourth Estate’
When I became the editor of the New York Times I think the biggest change was convincing the newsroom that you could think about audience and you could think about how many people read your story without selling your soul. That didn’t mean chasing clicks
The problem was, if clicks roughly equated being above the fold, it was an natural conclusion to draw.
The problem with simple metrics in journalism is the same as empty calories in junk food: they might provide a short term buzz, but they’re of no constructive use whatsoever.
If you’re nurturing trust, seeking an engaged readership and writing superlative content, it makes sense to check in. Just as your ninth grade english teacher gave you feedback, you should be seeking insights from wherever they are available. Your editor will provide some. Colleague might too. But without checking in with the people actually reading what you’re writing, how will you understand if your message is getting through at all?
It’s not just figures, figures, figures
Part of the problem with analytics and metrics is that they have been either too simple (see clicks and page views) or too complex. No journalist can or should be willing to sequester themselves away in a data bunker for days upon end trying to decode the vast amount of data on offer now. Neither should they think that page views are the whole story.
What you can do is use data wisely, efficiently and at intervals which are appropriate for you, your team and your organisation. At Sueddeutesche Zeitung editors have access to this kind of data every quarter. Other organizations find that once a month suits them better. Chances are, you’ll find that your data team is monitoring article performance (particularly if you’re a larger organisation) and will let you know if there are any issues, and feedback accordingly, but why not take an interest yourself?
Obsessing over data is likely to be counterproductive, but – as your mother probably reminds you – moderation is the key. Incorporating editorial analytics into your workflow is sensible in today’s world where managers and editors have a closer eye than ever on article efficiency and ROIs. If you’re missing the mark because of something easily correctable, wouldn’t you want to know about it?