Why journalists shouldn’t be afraid of metrics

Takeaways from the News Impact Academy on audience development

The News Impact Academy on audience development in Bucharest, Romania.

Imagine your grandma makes an amazing apple pie — perfectly cooked with a crisp, flaky crust, and thick filling. Everyone in your family loves it, but no-one else gets to try it because it doesn’t leave her kitchen, and there is nothing quite like it in the stores.

If you were to turn grandma’s pie into a business, you’re going to have to spread the word, think about when people would eat it, where they would want to buy it, and how you get them to pay for it. You would use all the tools you have to maximise your chance of success.

The same goes for journalism.

Participants pair up to discuss their challenges around audience development

Most journalists are passionate about producing high-quality stories to inform the public about important societal issues. A lot of effort goes into research, interviewing, fact-checking, and finding the right storytelling format to publish a piece that will be read and has an impact on many people.

But in today’s high-choice media environment, these amazing stories may not make their way to your audience without proper promotion. In the overloaded, ever-evolving landscape of the internet, we have to go the extra mile to reach our readers.

And that’s where audience development comes in.

Many newsrooms now have a person or a team dedicated to growing audience, building long-term relationships with readers, and eventually driving growth that will make or keep news organisations financially sustainable.

We gathered 20 audience developers from across Europe at our latest News Impact Academy in Bucharest to share knowledge, brainstorm new ideas, and overcome challenges to help the news industry better promote high-quality journalism. These are some takeaways from our two-day training:

Journalism first, audience development second

“The aim of audience development is to optimise the work journalists do, you can’t optimise the journalists,” said Chris Moran, the Guardian’s editor for strategic projects and speaker at our academy. He spent the last ten years figuring out how to reach “the widest, most relevant audience online”.

Graphic recording of our News Impact Academy in Bucharest, Romania

His quest for growing audience resulted in Ophan — an analytics platform that allows every journalist in the newsroom to access their stories’ metrics in real-time.

But the tool alone wasn’t enough. Creating a positive culture around data was crucial to “meaningfully integrate data into editorial action, supporting journalists and journalism rather than threatening it”.

Build trust in metrics

Communicating data within the newsroom is still one of the most pressing challenges for audience developers. Metrics can be confusing, incomplete, and anecdotal and analytics tools can be quite daunting. “People don’t know what numbers mean,” said one participant.

Data literacy within the newsroom varies. “Using complex language may scare some people away, others understand it very well,” said one participant. So instead of simply sharing the numbers, they need to be contextualised and communicated in a more understandable way.

The Guardian’s audience development team created a set of ‘golden rules’ for communication around data. Every morning, they send a carefully written email to the entire newsroom highlighting good and bad practices. “It helps us gain trust,” said Chris.

When the entire newsroom is on board with using metrics, they can become incredibly useful in analysing successes and failures, learning from them, and experimenting the way forward. ”Data allows newsrooms to move from trusting their gut to trusting the data,” said Chris.

A wall of challenges in audience development at the News Impact Academy

Putting audience development into practice

Using data as constructive feedback allows newsrooms to gradually upgrade the reader experience, resulting in better stories and a better product. Here are some examples of how the audience developers from our News Impact Academy promote high-quality journalism:

  • Build a scoring model — One participant’s newsroom developed a system in which subscribers are labelled green, yellow, or red, according to the number of articles they read and how often/how much they comment. This allows the team to focus better on tweaking the reader experience for yellows to become green, reds to become yellow, and so on.
  • Reduce the number of stories — Dropping the volume of stories to improve the quality of content makes engagement go up. Over the last three years, the Guardian cut the number of articles by a third, because a third of their stories were informing less than 1% of the entire audience, according to Chris.
  • Effective resource allocation — Being more data-savvy can help newsrooms be more sensible about how to use resources. For example, a recent study found that ‘hardly anyone goes to a news site to watch video’. If this goes for your publication, you may want to prioritise text or audio for certain stories to get your stories across more effectively.
  • Fight back against the long-read —When the number of words in an article goes up, time spent goes down, so you’ll need to improve the storytelling to get people reading until the end. “Long-reads are brilliant, but news organisations often mistake length for quality and impact,” said Chris. “It’s crucial that we write in-depth pieces, but we have to cut back on the number of words.”
  • Same journalism, bigger audience — Lastly, there are many data-inspired ways to generate more traffic and add more value to your existing journalism: publish more versions of a story throughout the day, offer several niche newsletters, more push notification opt-in options, improve story positioning on the homepage, and re-use archive content.

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Interviews, insights and opportunities from the European Journalism Centre.

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Ingrid Cobben

Ingrid Cobben

Journalist 😁👍🏼 #Storytelling #AudienceEngagement #BusinessModels #Diversity #DesignThinking #Localisation #ConstructiveJournalism #Community

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