So, how did my story do?

It’s not all about numbers, it’s about engaging the right audience.

James G. Robinson, New York Times. Photo by Viktoria Muench

One of the many perks of going to grad school a block away from the New York Times is that on a few occasions, my classmates and I have the pleasure of welcoming some of the editors and reporters as guest speakers in our classes.

Last week, James Robinson came to chat with my Metrics & Outcomes class about his job as NYT director of global analytics.

The first thing he mentioned that all journalists do after their story was published is ask one simple question:

“How did my story do?”

Usually, the expected answer is a hopefully very high number of clicks. The bigger the number is, the more satisfied the reporter will be.

So I’m sitting there thinking, well yes, that makes sense. Why wouldn’t you want a high number of clicks? We all write to be read.

However, Robinson explained why the number of clicks may not always be an indicator whether or not the story was a success. It moreso depends on the content and how well its specific audience can relate to it.

According to Robinson, there are two distinctions made in analytics: measurement and insight. “Measurement means you have a model of how the world works, and insight means discovering things about the world you don’t know.”

So when it comes to the success of a certain story, it depends a lot on whether its content deals with a topic that hasn’t been discussed yet.

Robinson added that something a lot of journalists still do wrong is that they don’t often ask for things they don’t know. They mostly look at people’s habits and then develop assumptions about their readers.

This is where analytics can come in handy, according to Robinson. He said, “the true value of analytics is the synthesis of readers and stories. It’s about bringing the audience into the newsroom.”

This point was very interesting, as it describes what social journalism is all about.

When it comes to metrics in terms of audiences, Robinson said that analytics can help provide specific characteristics, because the question is always about how many people interested in a story have actually read it.

In print, this is a lot easier to measure, as the audience is pretty much comprised of everyone who goes and buys a copy of the paper.

This is as far as the measuring can go in print.

“In digital, every story can find its own audience,” Robinson said. It’s a lot harder to figure out an audience online, and a lot more tools to measure the interests and reading habits of a specific audience are required.

So, a story about a specific issue may not get as many clicks as a story that covers a broader topic, and that might just be okay. It shouldn’t always be about the number of clicks, but more about the fact that a reporter managed to publish a piece which engages the right audience.

Unfortunately, there is no recipe on how to achieve that. According to Robinson, engagement really can’t be measured. He said engagement is an emotional state, just like love is.

It occurs when what readers want to do, and what a journalist wants his or her readers to do is aligned, which brings us back to the foundation of social journalism.

Unfortunately, this is what is often skipped when it comes to coming up with stories. Journalists don’t bring their readers inside the newsroom, they rather put out stories to their readers in hopes to be read.

The way to fix that is knowing how to ask the right questions, framing things the right way, and getting people in an organisation to think a certain way.

Engaging with an audience is key when it comes to being a good reporter. If you know who you’re writing a story for, whether the audience is big or small, you will know where those clicks came from, and it will feel rewarding no matter what.

I’m glad Robinson confirmed the social journalism theory from the point of view of an analytics editor. We know this concept works, and now it’s time to implement it.