Beyond the numbers: How to make analytics matter in your newsroom
September 8, 2016
By ELIZABETH STEPHENS
News Editor | Columbia Missourian, Columbia, MO
How do you make analytics interesting and useful for a newsroom? As the Columbia Missourian began revamping its weekly report, this was the question we asked ourselves.
When the Missourian was able to integrate the new digital analytics platform Parse.ly into its analytics reporting, we saw an opportunity to make significant changes to the report going to the newsroom every week.
Missourian outreach team member Daniela Vidal met with editors in the newsroom to discuss what they would like to see in reports. By the end of the project, we learned four important insights about analytics.
1. Make analytics interesting and useful for everyone.
Some of the complaints about the previous format: too much text, and the point of the analysis wasn’t clear. We also heard from people who wanted the basic information but also the option to go deeper if they wanted. The new analytics report tries to address these issues by simplifying the analysis and boiling it down to answering a single question. But Parse.ly also allows us to share the report for a particular post with a shareable link that doesn’t require a login. If an editor or reporter is particularly interested in a story, he or she can click to see more information.
Parse.ly has also opened the door to more individual reports that can be automated. The tool allows us to send reports based on section or author, among other parameters. Although the main newsroom report is a one-size-fits-all approach, these customized reports allow for more targeted information.
2. When is information useful? When is it irrelevant?
In the weekly analytics report, we included a section with the week’s top social posts. By the time the weekly report went out on Friday afternoon, those posts could be more than a week old. The long delay in sharing these posts didn’t give us much opportunity to make changes. Instead, we started presenting information about the top stories and what was happening on social media during the daily meetings in the newsroom. This made the outreach team more visible and put analytics and social media at top of mind for everyone in the newsroom.
3. Know your baseline.
As we started digging into the reports, we realized we didn’t have a baseline for comparison. We picked out three stories to analyze based on page views—some for high numbers and others for low numbers—but we couldn’t say how those numbers fit in with the history of our site. We knew our numbers had been on the rise as we covered news around the University of Missouri for several months, but we couldn’t definitively say what our averages and medians were for page views and visitors.
To solve this, Vidal did an assessment of the top 500 stories for the previous months to provide a baseline analysis. She was able to look at each quintile and determine how types of stories performed.
We plan to continue this analysis quarterly and share it with the newsroom, as well.
4. What answer are you looking for?
Although all of the numbers and analytics are interesting, what’s important is what you do with those numbers. When we restructured the weekly report, we wanted to answer one question for each story analyzed — what did we learn about our audience? The question might vary based on the newsroom, but we believed that answering this particular question provided the best takeaways for a newsroom as a whole. It’s also broad enough that many pieces of analytics can help answer the question, such as engaged time, referrals and device type.
Elizabeth Stephens is a news editor at the Columbia Missourian and an assistant professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.