Attempting to measure engagement is "one of the great neurosis" of the modern media industry, according to The New York Times' James G. Robinson.
Discussions around metrics often focus too much on measurement and not enough around insights, Robinson, the outlet's director of analytics innovation, told delegates at the World News Media Congress in Washington DC today.
"Trying to boil engagement down to a single metric is in many ways a futile task," he said, "because engagement is something that happens in your heart and mind... it's an emotion."
At the Times, metrics are centred around not just measuring engagement, but seeking to understand what motivates a reader to interact with a story in some way, whether through sharing, commenting or simply reading it.
"What we really want to do is not bring numbers into the newsroom, we want to bring the audience into the newsroom," said Robinson. "The goal is to understand people."
The problem with using metrics purely based on numbers, of course, is that they can easily be misinterpreted when taken out of context.
This is especially risky because, as a recent Tow Center report highlighted, story metrics that are not seen as 'good' enough can have a demoralising impact on journalists' sense of themselves and their work.
The key to understanding the audience is to listen to them, said Robinson, using methods that can be anything from a big research study to just talking to people.
Listening is also a way to help journalists get better at producing stories that are relevant and interesting to their audience.
"A critical skill is for editors to synthesise their gut instinct about what makes great journalism with the signals that they hear from the audiences," said Robinson.
One way editors at the Times are listening to their audience is by monitoring Reddit to see the stories that are sparking discussion.
Robinson noted that Reddit is not especially useful from an audience development perspective, due to the fact that posting your own links is not seen as good etiquette by the platform's community.
Although Reddit is part of the Times' strategy, he explained it is harder to seed conversations there than on other platforms.
However, he said the Times sees Reddit as "less of a traffic-driving tool that we can control... and more of a really great rich source of connecting our editors to our audiences".
Links posted to the NYT subreddit are not just current stories, but can be anything the outlet has published "in the last 20 years" that redditors pick up and find interesting.
One example of a Times story that made it onto Reddit recently is Portraits of Grief – published at the time of the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and revisited 10 years later – which received 1,200 comments on the platform.
"Sometimes these conversations are really terrible, and sometimes they're really valuable," said Robinson. "And it's that unexpected value we're trying to capture."
The Times has built two tools to enable editors and journalists to monitor these conversations.
One is a bot that scans Reddit and sends an alert to a Slack channel every time an NYT story is discussed.
And, as not everyone uses Slack, journalists can also receive this alert in the form of an email.
These tools allow journalists and editors to listen to – and sometimes participate in – relevant conversations on Reddit as they happen.
The Times also uses Reddit as a source for stories, said Robinson, especially its sports reporters who are "immersed in the Reddit soccer channel".
"Again, the metric of success for this project is not how much traffic we get back from Reddit, although when we do it's very healthy traffic," he added.
"It's about understanding these audience segments."
You can use the following two IFTTT recipes to monitor mentions of your site on Reddit and create alerts via Slack or email. Simply input your domain in the search box, for example site:’journalism.co.uk'.
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