You will be hard-pressed to find a successful digital newsroom that does not use metrics to measure how journalistic content performs. But not everyone is enthusiastic about having their work judged against the number of page views or conversions to paying subscribers.
And this is not only true about reporters. Elisabeth Gamperl is the managing editor of the data storytelling unit at the German news organisation Süddeutsche Zeitung and although her job requires working with audience data, she admits she was feeling anxious about looking at analytics.
Elisabeth Gamperl (above) managing editor, data storytelling unit, Süddeutsche Zeitung
To face her metrics anxiety, Gamperl decided to work on a research paper for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (RISJ) and look at successful strategies that newsrooms around the world employ to work with data constructively.
Most people become journalists because we care about stories, not page views. While doing her research, Gamperl found that many journalists fear that focusing on metrics like website traffic will spoil journalistic values.
The pressure that comes with measuring other aspects of article performance like conversions or time spent or page can also leave some journalists feeling anxious, worried or disillusioned.
To overcome this fear, Gamperl advises to set out goals and allow yourself and your newsroom to experiment - and that includes failures. For instance, if you want to reach more readers, think about what could make it easier for people to discover your article. Then try different strategies, like changing the publication time, tweaking the headline or using a different picture.
Once you finish the project, take a look at the data and see which of your assumptions proved correct and also what did not work. Either way, you are learning how to improve the publishing process. The same method can be used if you are looking to increase the number of subscribers or perhaps encourage people to read until the last sentence.
But many newsrooms are still hesitant to use metrics. Gamperl says that this is mainly because no one likes to feel judged or ranked on a leaderboard.
It helps to remember that metrics are not good or evil in themselves. For instance, page views get often vilified because they are often seen as encouraging clickbait. But this is a problem of the newsroom culture or business model, not of a single metric. The number of users who clicked on a link says nothing about the quality of the article, she continued. But if tweaking a headline or publishing at a different time could attract thousands more readers to the same piece, this can help you better fulfil your purpose as a journalist.
Page views in isolation do not mean much. Other metrics like time spent on the page will help you evaluate how successful your article is, although "success" always depends on what you have set out to achieve.
Another bad habit you need to beware of is cherry-picking the data that support your assumptions. This is why it is important to have goals and test your hypotheses. The purpose of data is to assess how something has performed, not to validate it.
The danger of the god metric
Many newsrooms pick one metric that becomes sacrosanct to evaluate the performance of their journalism or, indeed, journalists. This "god metric" can be conversions, page views or anything else.
But sometimes it is important to cover a story that will not boost the god metric and that is fine. For instance, if breaking news happens and you cannot wait for an "ideal time" to publish it, this should never stop you from doing so if it is in the interest of your readers. In the end, it is the editorial judgement that needs to prevail.
Knowledge is power
Sometimes metrics anxiety can be caused by the sheer volume of data. How much reporters need to know about metrics depends on their position in the newsroom.
First things first, journalists need training to become data-literate and not just be given access to a dashboard they are not equipped to interpret. This risks getting hung up on a single piece of data and writing for the metric rather than using it to measure the performance of their content over time.
Sometimes, the data confirms your instincts and shows that the story that you thought will perform well actually did. Once you finish celebrating, check the data and look for patterns. What can you learn from this success for publishing future pieces?
Either way, journalists should not be left alone with the data. A healthy relationship with audience metrics requires a leadership effort - if the editor-in-chief and managers do not believe in the use of data, no one will. Newsroom leaders also need to make decisions like which metrics to focus on and how these should inform the direction the newsroom is heading in. For instance, if you realise you tend to quote more men than women in your stories, tracking how many women are quoted can help you address gender inequality in news sources, which can in turn increase female readership.
"It’s not about the formula but about the newsroom culture," says Gamperl. Metrics are not the ones judging us, she added, as the journalistic instinct is the most important part of our work. Data can help you make smarter decisions to reach more people - and what is your journalism good for if it is not read?