A journalist’s journey from words to numbers (and making analytics work)

Mark Thompson

Mark Thompson is the head of audience at Johnston Press Yorkshire. He spoke on the Metrics panel discussion at the Behind Local News about the opportunities he’s embraced by using analytics in the newsroom. This is an abridged version of his presentation

My big role at Johnston Press Yorkshire is to make sure that we produce the right content for the web that is of interest to the audiences that we’ve got across 26 titles in the area. For me, it’s a journey from words to numbers.

I was as a trainee reporter and I kind of got to know analytics by doing digital really just by putting things out there and seeing what came back. As analytics improved, and things like Charbeat came in, my knowledge evolved, and the newsrooms’ knowledge developed. We’ve all kind of grown together I guess and as an industry we’ve all done that. over the last five six years.

So I’m going to start with one of my favourite subjects: the weather. When I was a reporter the weather was kind of my thing really. I realised that by doing weather stories, I got a lot of page views, I got comments on social media. The more weather stories I wrote, the more interaction I got. It wasn’t just page views, it was actually people hanging around commenting, sending photos in, sending their videos in and this is kind of before really analytics kicked in.

I could see in a fairly kind of paper-focused newsroom that this was obviously something pretty big and something we should be doing. It wasn’t just weather, it’s things such as bin collections, road closures, Ofsted reports … all the things that we know across our newsrooms re drive audience of huge interest and we did it in the in the newspapers but we weren’t that great at it online.

Comments like ‘not another weather story,’ or ‘it’s all cats and fitness fads online’ or ‘people just want hard news’ or ‘not listicles’ held us back — the Grey Cardigan comments.

I think then way the industry is changing caused confusion as it made peole unsure of what we’re doing and why we were doing it because it’s very different from how the newspapers used to work.

But I found that by using analytics and using the metrics it gives clarity so we can show what our audiences want. And it’s not just hard news.

We don’t do to cat stories sadly but we do a lot of weather and service journalism — things that affect people’s daily lives on top of the news. And we can try other things too, remembering that the media has always been varied.

You can go down the supermarket aisle you’ll see cats, you’ll see newspapers you’ll, see fitness fads, you see celebrities, you’ll see cars magazines. The beauty of digital is that we can do all that on one platform if we want.

So while we are heavily news-focused, the metrics show that we can actually bring more value to people’s lives. That’s all fairly basic really but just my very very brief journey into what I do know from being a trainee Paul to being head of audience for Yorkshire.

Creating platforms based on metrics

Now people say because I’m obsessed by the numbers that I’m the saddest man in the newsrooms. And I say yes, sad is very important. What we do is supply and demand. People need to know information. We put stories out there, we can track them and we can make sure people are interested and they are clicking around the site. And we create platforms within platforms.

In Leeds, we have created ‘Leeds City Buzz’ because we know there is a a big interest cocktail bars, hotels, where the stay and so on — the things people search for on Google, and now the things people come directly to us. By putting that content together in one place, we can try and build a key audience that is separate from the news.

We know that some people want to be hard news. We also know that some people just want to know what’s happening in Leeds in terms of lifestyle.

The data we have now, shows over time that my ideas back when I was doing weather stories haven’t changed much. The top stories for page views and engagement on the Yorkshire Post in the last couple of months are the stories which affect people’s lives.

We’re talking weather, bin collections, road closures for the Tour de Yorkshire, driving, prescription medicines, the things that people want to know. We know they want to know because they are the things are people searching for. These are people themselves on their iPhone clicking through.

3 ways to use metrics

In the newsroom I had a wander round the newsroom a couple of days ago and asked people really what they thought about the metrics we use now.

People are using metrics in different ways, such as to AB test headlines to see what works best, or to check spikes in Chartbeat to see what they should be following up.

There’s no one size fits all. The live team will use metrics differently to the features team. Different ways but both just as important. To me it breaks down to three categories of use:

  1. Reactive: We see something spike on Chartbeat and ask what more we can do. Where is the audience coming from? How can we increase the audience through search and social? We already have lots of tips and tricks when this happens. And it’s important to look at other metrics, like Google Trends to see what is being searched for.
  2. Reflective: It’s always important to then sit back and think about what we did. What worked? Was it a good job? What can we change next time? Can we learn from the experience?
  3. Proactive: Making sure that we understand why a story spiked, so we’re ready for it next time, because it’ll probably happen again. Do you have a playbook that we can go into when a story like this happens? What are the next five stories after the one that has spiked?

The importance of coaching

We can all see the data but really how we use that data is what matters, so coaching people on the use of data is the most important thing we have to do.

We do this by making people aware of it, understanding what it means, what engagement means, why page views are important, why unique users are important, but also how they can help get people going on site and recirculating.

A big part of that is personality. We know what keywords work and we know what type of content works. But often it’s a little human twist to headline a story or to an image that would make the biggest difference.

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