From Believing to Verifying; How the Impact Tracker Proved our Value
We believe that Bay City News has had a tremendous impact since our founding in 1979. As a 24/7 news service for the greater Bay Area region, we are in many respects the backbone of the news ecosystem, delivering original reporting on 12 counties to most TV, radio, print and digital outlets that then republish or build on our stories. We have always been able to see anecdotally that our election stories, City Council reports, storm warnings and public health alerts matter to the region’s 9 million residents. But how do we prove it, measure it and document it?
The customized impact tracker created for us by The Impact Architects, which we have been using for two years, has been a critical tool. It allows us to collect information we need to internally assess which stories are resonating — and which are not. It’s more than just clicks. Every Monday morning, our staff members meet to review the metrics, hear about feedback from readers, sources and other stakeholders, and review how our information is republished, cited or used. It has also helped us direct our resources toward new areas of coverage like aging, the environment, public health and voting.
Bay City News is a hybrid local news operation. We have a commercial newswire for dozens of paying business subscribers like media outlets and PR firms plus a non-profit arm that publishes community-oriented public service stories on our LocalNewsMatters website, and in two weekly newsletters. The impact examples and metrics we collect tap into every part of our operation. They are used to update our Strategic Plan and our annual Impact Report, which informs donors about our nonprofit, potential clients who might want to subscribe to our newswire, and readers and sources who want to know more about who we are and what we do.
Here are some examples of impacts we have tracked in the last year:
- Solano County’s Civil Grand Jury Report cited two of our stories about Vallejo’s search for a new police headquarters, revealing the community’s polarized feelings about the department and their recent scandals. (This shows Institutional Impact because the content was directly cited by policymakers in a public setting.)
- A Berkeley resident reached out to our publisher in February after reading a Microsoft profile about our news outlet and inquired about subscribing to our newsletters. (This shows Organizational Impact because the profile, viewed more than 14 million times, led to increasing our own core audience at LocalNewsMatters.org.)
- Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf included one of our stories in her official newsletter, before her term in office ended. (This shows Institutional Impact because the content was republished by a partner news organization and then directly cited by a city representative on additional platforms and social media.)
- Comedians featured in an A&E article retweeted the story to their combined audience of more than 50,000 followers. (This shows Community/Network Impact because they amplified the story by sharing it to their own networks.)
- Our Covid-19 Info Hub received a national LION Local Journalism Award in 2021 for Best Coronavirus Coverage. (This shows Community/Network Impact because an industry organization recognized our work with an award.)
- A key assigning editor at a local TV station praised the value of BCN: “Bay City News is a truly valuable tool for our newsroom. The Datebook calendar is an indispensable source for planned events.” (This shows Media Amplification Impact, illustrating the power of our agenda setting role.)
- An organizer of a UC Berkeley rally against the People’s Park housing development said they were thankful for our reporting, noting that it increased their trust in Bay City News and journalism at large. (This shows Individual Impact by giving Increased knowledge to readers so they know what they can do to address a problem.)
Here’s how we describe the process to our staff, who are responsible for logging examples.
What is “impact”?
The impact we want to measure consists of feedback our stories and projects receive from four key actors: readers, officials, communities, clients/partners.
Why are we doing this?
Logging the impact of your reporting can be useful in many ways, including:
Getting a feel for which stories garner tangible impact and help us improve our coverage
Referring back to this log when it is time for contests, performance evaluations, grant applications, funder reports, marketing materials and donation asks.
By pulling together quantitative data and qualitative feedback, the tracker gives us a more complete perspective about the value of our work that we can share with our staff, funders, clients and other stakeholders. It means we can easily cite concrete examples of how our journalism makes a difference in the communities we serve. Telling our story more effectively means we are more likely to get donations, institutional funding, clients and partnerships so our news organization can be sustainable and grow.
Most news organizations — including ours — manage a lot of complexity, from staffing to readership to operations, so making this tracking task easy is key. The analysis we pull out of all the indicators is only as good as the information that goes into the tracker. One challenge is getting full participation from busy staff so dedicating a coordinator to prompt entries, report on results and keep the system updated is important. In our case, Ugur Dursun leads our weekly meetings and follows up with reporters on particularly compelling examples to write in-depth case studies that can be used in the creation of future grant applications, funder reports, and other collateral. How do we know if we are successful? The Impact Tracker dashboard brings it all together.
Lots of different measurements — some standard to the Impact Tracker and some customized — tell parts of our story. For example:
- We monitor Google Analytics and Parse.ly to track clicks, site visitors, and acquisition.
- We use Mailchimp to look at newsletter open and click through rates.
- We look at our follower numbers on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and now Post.news.
- We document feedback from readers on a Google form whenever a story prompts a comment, question or action.
- We scrape the web to show us when our stories get republished.
- We track the reasons donors give to our nonprofit.
- We survey our readers and our business clients to find out what they value, what they are missing, and what is most useful.
- We record consistent payments from commercial clients and donations from readers and institutional funders, providing an endorsement of our product and the financial support we need to do our work.
Using the Impact Tracker has changed our culture as a news organization, giving us regular feedback about our impact as individual journalists and as an organization. Having the data readily accessible means we can make better choices about what we should do more or less of so our work is not published in a vacuum. It means that our staff — from interns to veterans — can track our collective impact and point to ready examples of their best work. And we also can evaluate the gaps in our coverage and look for ways to do better by recruiting new staff who bring different skills and perspectives to the team, especially through our internship program for emerging journalists.
Our next steps are to use this baseline data to measure our progress over time and do more in-depth surveys and listening tours. That will help us to continue building trust with readers, sources and news partners. Moving from a belief that we have impact to actually verifying and understanding our impact has been a game changer.