Part 2: Building a digital audience for news

(NOTE: This series of posts is an excerpt from my upcoming book, Journalism Next, which will be published by CQPress and is due out in the fall.)

How many breaking news updates did you send last week? How many video stories did you publish last month? By percentage, how much did your online audience grow (or shrink) last year?

These questions, and dozens more, can be easily answered by sophisticated news operations and solo bloggers alike. Productivity, of course, is one of the key measurements for managers. But going beyond the basics, tracking content published is a smart business strategy.

“This kind of data helps us decide how best to apply the newsgathering resources we have,” says Ryan Pitts, assistant managing editor for digital media for the Spokesman-Review. “For example, we might love multimedia and be able to produce great video, but when we look at the audience numbers, it forces us to consider the return we’ll get on that investment of time. That doesn’t mean we abandon video as a storytelling tool; it means we pick our spots a bit more carefully. Looking into our analytics also helps surface stories that deserve following up, blogs that we can leave behind, projects that show promise and deserve to be expanded. It’s important to pay attention: We’re making decisions that directly affect the future of our newsroom, and we have access to far too much useful data to just go with our gut.”

Baker’s dozen: Here is a starter list of content types journalists and newsrooms should be regularly tracking:

1. Total news stories per day
2. News stories by topic or section (sports, business, local, etc.)
3. Total blog posts per day (if these are different than news stories on your site)
4. Blog posts by specific blog
5. Slideshows per week
6. Video stories per week
7. Podcasts or other audio stories
8. News updates (if these are different than news stories on your site)
9. Breaking news email alerts
10. SMS or other mobile news alerts
11. Email newsletters that are not sent automatically
12. Twitter, Facebook or other social network posts
13. User generated content (blog posts, photos, videos)

The easiest way to track this information is with a Web-based spreadsheet that multiple people can access so the task of updating the information can be distributed. Across the top, list the content types you already publish on a fairly regular basis. Down the left site, list the dates. After a week’s worth or month’s worth of dates, insert a line that totals the amounts in each column for that week or month. Then copy and paste that week or month format for each time period going forward and now the spreadsheet will do the math for you.

Establishing benchmarks for goals

Compiling data on productivity without setting goals for either maintaining or hopefully, improving the level of output is relatively pointless. So the objective in tracking content is to create benchmarks that become the goals for a newsroom or even a solo journalist to aim for.
Use a systematic approach based on historical data when setting goals for your audience growth:

1. Review past performance of specific sections to generate historical averages on a per month or per week basis.
2. Determine which areas of your site have the most potential for growth and decide what new initiatives you can launch to tap them.
3. Set an aggressive but realistic goal for growth over a 6- or 12-month period, based on the new initiatives.
4. Review the audience data each week to track progress. If the numbers aren’t trending in the right direction, adjust your content strategy and execution and try something new.

Once you start tracking content you will start to get a more accurate sense for where to set your goals. These should start with a simple number of stories, videos or blog posts to produce per day or per week. But they should evolve to include other measurements like audience, revenue and other audience satisfaction metrics like user registrations or email newsletter and RSS feed subscriptions.

At Google, they call this process OKR, which stands for Objectives and Key Results. Marissa Meyer, Vice President of Search Product and User Experience at Google, described the OKRs as “incredibly measurable. Did we launch the product on time? Did we get the number of advertisers we wanted? Did we attain a certain level of user happiness?”

If you still think revenue shouldn’t be a factor in making content decisions about journalism, you should start looking for a time machine and go back a few decades. The reality of today’s competitive landscape, what media expert Christopher Vollmer calls digital “Darwinism,” demands that business needs and journalistic tactics work in concert.

“The most important metrics I follow are revenue and unique users, often tracking the mix as revenue per unique user,” says Jason Silverstein, vice president of interactive media at The Charlotte Observer. “Many organizations would say unique users, which is very similar in that the goal is to have more unique people taking interest in your content.  When the audience broadens, the opportunities to both display your content and find sales opportunities increase.

“Page views are tracked on an overall basis, but again, without context this metric lacks true punch.”

Establishing benchmarks and goals can only be done on a case-by-case basis. What works in one market may not make sense in another. And even within a particular Web site, some sections will have different goals than others. For example, if you track page views to the Local News section of local newspaper Web site, you can look backward to see what an average month produces and what are the best and worst numbers. Use this past history to develop your estimates, then determine where to set your goals for increasing the audience to that section.

By contrast, a relatively new section of a Web site, or a new blog, that doesn’t have years of past performance will be more difficult to forecast. But you can use the performance of other sections or projects that are similar in scope as the basis for your estimates.

Don’t set goals arbitrarily. Picking a number because it “sounds good” is not the same as making sound judgments based on historical data. If you expect your Web site to grow its traffic by 30 percent in the next six months, what specific initiatives are you launching that will propel that growth? Your audience, after all, is unlikely to grow just because you want it to.

And remember, goals should include more than just numbers of page views. Are there new advertisers? Is the audience happy? Think broadly when setting goals, but use the traffic data and audience patterns to manage and measure the pursuit of them.

Most-viewed and most-emailed stories have influence on editorial planning meetings, and they should. But as Silverstein notes, context and perspective is important when using Web metrics to make journalistic decisions. Sensational stories involving crimes or celebrities will usually draw more page views. Professional and college sports coverage also do well, for example, on newspaper Web sites. The context is that the audience for coverage of sports and celebrities is larger than for more local stories. For example, if I’m a Chicago Cubs fan but I don’t live in Chicago, I am still “potential audience” for the Chicago Tribune Web site. But I’m probably not going to read about the Chicago city council.

“Even though we might chuckle a bit that ‘Man burned opening paint can with
drill’ is No. 1, while a meaningful profile or investigative piece languishes somewhere much further down the popularity list, it’s also a good reminder for us,” says Pitts.  “People want to be informed about the big issues, but they also really, REALLY care about the little daily things going on in their community.”

Use traffic data to determine which projects are working, too. For example, a new blog or a new section of a Web site can be better managed by using Web analytics. But if the traffic numbers are anemic, that doesn’t mean you should necessarily pull the plug, especially if it’s an idea that people are still excited about.

“Don’t kill projects. Morph them,” Mayer says Google CEO Eric Schmidt advises. “Not walking away from ideas but thinking about how to repackage them and rejuvenate them.”

It’s good advice, especially for news organizations that have a tendency to plant lots of seeds but spend little time on the care and feeding of new sprouts. By analyzing traffic data and establishing benchmarks, projects can be more closely managed and improved over time.

Related: Part 1: Building a digital audience for news

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