News organisations' ability to identify and measure the impact of their work is crucial in prioritising areas of coverage, resources and workflows.
While measurements of impact and success can vary from one publisher to another, there are some common changes that can derive from reporting or investigations at a local or national level, such as an update in policy law for example.
The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) open-sourced its Impact Tracker platform 18 July, a tool Lindsay Green-Barber, the organisation's director of strategic research, began developing two years ago when she joined the company.
"When the time came to do a grant proposal or report and we wanted to talk about impact, people had to either think back, look through an email folder or look at the more traditional metrics," Green-Barber told Journalism.co.uk.
"But the organisation was frustrated with that, because at that point we had a distributed content model and most of the reach of that content was coming through partners and distribution outlets and we didn't always have access to their data."
Green-Barber conducted a staff survey to see what people's definition of impact was, asking for concrete examples of when their work had been successful and analysing the different ways they were currently tracking impact, like email folders or Word documents.
The Impact Tracker allows reporters to measure the impact of their work, investigative or otherwise, over time, by filling out a quick web form whenever their piece sparks change or a conversation. The form asks for details such as the date the project was mentioned, the medium and the link to it, and the level of impact.
The changes are split into categories such as micro (at an individual level), meso (affecting a community or group), macro (happening at an institutional level) and media, according to their nature.
They can range from a prominent political figure mentioning or sharing a story, to a call for a meeting or investigation, or a response from a corporation.
Anyone who has access to the tracker can then view this information in a timeline, filter through the data by level of impact or timeframe, or download it as a .csv file.
The team also pairs the data from the Impact Tracker with social media metrics and traditional web metrics, looking at them "holistically" to get a better sense of how people are reacting to their work.
"If we get a story that has huge reach, shares, comments, what does that mean in terms of subsequent change? Do people feel like they know more? Is there a policy remedy?
"There are times when stories have lots of reach and we don't see an immediate world change and vice-versa, when projects don't go that far on the internet."
Some 20 organisations, including The Seattle Times, the Solutions Journalism Network and foundations, have been using CIR's Impact Tracker before it was open-sourced, and Green-Barber pointed out it can help measure any type of journalistic work, not just that of an investigative nature.
"In investigative reporting, the gold standard is policy change.
"But we have reporters who are working on complicated issues such as sexual harassment or worker discrimination, which are systematic problems and not just loopholes to be closed.
"Paying more attention to how we inform public discourse, and to when our audiences know more about an issue and do something with that information, gives us a way to notice some of those patterns and demonstrate the value of our investigative work in a way that doesn't necessarily immediately result in policy change," Green-Barber said.
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