Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer
Betsy O'Donovan and Melody Kramer

348. Decoding metrics means embracing journalism that matters

Metrics have always played an important role in journalism, but different newsrooms might not think about them in the same way.

By measuring something as simple as a reader comment, or whether a far-reaching and well-received investigative piece was well received and a tool for change, newsrooms and journalists can better gauge if they’re doing the work their communities need.

In a new report from the American Press Institute titled How to build a metrics-savvy newsroom, Betsy O’Donovan and Melody Kramer find that metrics are a hot topic of conversation everywhere from Sesame Street to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library, a program in which the singer sends free books to young children.

But metrics are nothing new in journalism.

“Journalists don’t need be persuaded to care about metrics, they already do,” O’Donovan said. “I think we’ve all had experiences like the call from a reader who talks about a story that changed their point of view, or helped their church, or one they cut out because it featured their granddaughter. Metrics, fundamentally, are pieces of data that tell us how we’re doing our jobs.”

The types of metrics being weighed as a measure of success are changing, however, and it’s going back to items that veteran journalists have always held in higher esteem.

In the early days of digital journalism and news on websites, clicks were the all-important indication of success. That’s not the case any longer, O’Donovan said.

As people in leadership roles in newsrooms “develop a more sophisticated understanding of what is and is not useful to the survival of journalism, we’re finding things like engagement are significantly more important than just encounters,” she said. “Page views matter less than returning visits, for example. That’s something the grizzled old cops reporter who’s been on the beat for 40 years could’ve told you 10 years ago.”

Metrics can also help newsrooms identify a specific section of an audience that might be highly committed but underserved – like fans and attendees of Southern Methodist University in Texas, a school whose population was dwarfed by Texas A&M University but whose fans were eager to subscribe to a newsletter provided by the Dallas Morning News dedicated to their interests.

After all, if readers usually need to click on a site for valuable information hundreds, if not thousands, of times before they’re willing to subscribe, why not give them something more in line with what they’re looking for, a tactic proven to entice subscriptions earlier?

“We’re not talking about reporters having to get into a spreadsheet or analytics, but connecting something every organization needs. What can the newsroom do to affect that without creating ethical problems,” Kramer said. “Just tell the stories you’re excited to tell. You’re great at that.”

Betsy O’Donovan, an assistant professor of journalism at Western Washington University, and Melody Kramer, senior audience development manager at the Wikimedia Foundation, join producer Michael O’Connell to discuss a new report on metrics in journalism from the American Press Institute, why they’ve always mattered and why veteran journalists will embrace more easily the priorities newsrooms believe matter most.

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