Analytics don’t have to clash with journalistic values. Here’s how one team of reporters has used analytics to reinforce its mission.
When journalists think of analytics, they often think of page views — and the negative implications of measuring journalism simply based on how many people might have clicked on a story. But on a team of six enterprise reporters at The Buffalo News, a culture of tracking audience engagement analytics in a way that looks beyond page views has helped reinforce the team’s mission: to tell compelling enterprise stories.
Patrick Lakamp, enterprise editor at The Buffalo News, uses blended metrics in API’s Metrics for News to simplify the number-crunching and help his team discover how and why audiences engage with their work. These blended metrics, or Engagement Scores, are a custom mix of page views, time on page, and social media engagement combined into one number, for a simple but comprehensive understanding of how audiences are engaging with a story online.
One reporter in particular stands out to him: Tom Prohaska, who joined the enterprise team in January 2017. Prohaska has covered Niagara County for 24 years, and before joining the enterprise team he primarily produced quick daily stories. He was used to writing multiple bylines per day, Lakamp said. “The challenge was to channel all of his energy and knowledge into better-written enterprise stories.”
Lakamp made sure that, as with the rest of his team, Prohaska had the time and space to focus on enterprise stories without competing priorities. That meant cutting back on daily stories that don’t earn high engagement. Though Prohaska still writes dailies, he’s stopped doing many incremental updates or stories that come out of meetings and instead reports on stories that have a wider regional appeal beyond Niagara County. This has freed up time for more enterprise stories when ideas spark.
“What Metrics (for News) has helped with is to ascertain for me which of the dailies are worth my time,” Prohaska said. “For example, I don’t go to government meetings very much anymore because we’ve discovered that a lot of that doesn’t pull a very high readership. If there were some real thrilling event I would go to a meeting, but for the most part I avoid them now and I spend my time doing things that draw a more general interest in the metro area.”
Any newsroom with a web analytics tool can follow The Buffalo News’s example. Take a look at your newsroom analytics tool. What sorts of stories had the highest reading time? Page views? Social media traffic? How does your newsroom define engagement?
Think about which of those metrics, or others, are the most important to your newsroom. (Often, it’s more than just one metric.) Then see if you can find any patterns based on that data. What do you find you spend a lot of time on that doesn’t yield high engagement? Could you scale it back to make more time for an enterprise piece or to more deeply report a daily story?
Using Metrics for News data, he has also cut back on stories about the school board, cops and narcotics in Niagara County, he said.
This doesn’t mean he’s stopped covering those topics entirely. But the stories he reports on from those beats are largely more enterprise-driven than daily updates. For instance, he wrote about schools in Niagara County that would implement high-security features like facial recognition, as well as students in the Niagara Falls School District lobbying for a better sex education curriculum.
“Cutting down on dailies is one part of the strategy, but probably a more important part is knowing when to invest more time and effort into a story so it’s not just a daily story with limited impact,” Lakamp said. Digging deeper into an interesting would-be daily story and “treating it as an enterprise story with more sources, aggressive reporting and better writing has been key to the good reader engagement stories that Tom and others have written.”
The numbers in Metrics for News indicate that this strategy is paying off.
Prohaska now leads the newsroom in Engagement Scores for enterprise/feature stories, Lakamp said. Perhaps even more significantly, by paying attention to what audiences engage with, he increased engagement on his enterprise stories by 17 percent from 2017 to 2018.
The enterprise team as a whole has also adopted similar strategies as Prohaska and has seen positive results in their data. In 2018, three of Lakamp’s reporters performed in the top seven in the newsroom for driving engagement, as measured by the Engagement Scores, and all six of his reporters scored above the overall newsroom average.
“It’s helping them make that extra phone call, find that extra document to make the story that much more deeply reported, find the killer quote,” Lakamp said. “...So when they see the numbers come back from an enterprise stories, they see the payoff.”
To help Prohaska and the rest of his team transition from the sometimes necessary daily stories to an enterprise focus, Lakamp emphasizes that enterprise work is the priority.
“The most important thing editors can do is say yes to the enterprise stories and make sure reporters have the time to do them ... but also say no or discourage the daily-grind stories,” Lakamp said. “Most reporters appreciate having their editors’ blessing to avoid some stories and pursue others. So reward the enterprise stories.”