Newsroom leaders should be influencing their companies by motivating their teams to think how to engage readers in powerful journalism, Newsroom Initiative Lead Peter Bale said during the recent INMA Newsroom Leadership Master Class.
Bale wants media companies to also keep up to date on business models, use data to determine signals given by readers, and calculate digital reader engagement by having the right metrics and perspective on what readers are saying.
“The stress on users’ needs and aligning what you’re doing at the interest of your readers goes without saying but it actually needs to be said a lot,” Bale said.
During the master class, media leaders from FAZ, USA Today Network, The Times and The Sunday Times, News Corp Australia, and Financial Times shared how their companies are using metrics to understand user signals can help media companies combat churn and take steps to increase engagement.
Encouraging two-way dialogue
There is devotion to the mission — and then there are 200,000 e-mails hitting your inbox on a Saturday.
That’s what Carsten Knop, one of the editors-in-chief of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) in Germany, welcomes during the weekend. He accepts it as part of his strategy to get FAZ fully into the digital age.
One of Knop’s pet projects is reducing the churn rate. That’s where the F+ newsletter comes in. Knop writes and publishes it every Saturday, and it is where he employs his “personal touch.”
“I make them the offer that they can write me an e-mail to my actual personal e-mail address and ask me any questions they might have around their F+ subscription,” he said.
Hence the 200,000 e-mails.
“I can tell you my wife starts to, well, hate it,” he said, laughing. “On the other hand, if the reader gets a quick response, you can reduce the churn rate.”
Creating norms around data use
Journalists sometimes view data as an unwelcome addition to the newsroom, but Caitlin Petre, the author of All the News That’s Fit to Click, believes metrics can also be used to foster a “happy, healthy, sustainable” journalism culture, which is good news considering almost everyone agrees that they are here to stay.
There is still no consensus about the right way to use analytics. In her study and in further research since, Petre said she’s been surprised to see there are still not many universally agreed upon norms.
The lack of consensus is actually unusual in the journalism field, Petre pointed out, noting that many best practices are so established they’re almost taken for granted. For instance, everyone agrees you don’t fabricate sources and you don’t take money from sources.
Norms regarding how to use data are still emerging, though. This is unsettling, to some degree, Petre said, but also promising: “This means that we can still develop norms that are healthy for readers and healthy for journalists themselves.”
Building a successful search strategy
If a media company’s target audience is using search to find out information, then media companies need to be the first to show up in search. That’s the whole idea behind USA Today Network’s strategy and commitment to owning search. Sandy Schlosser, search strategist for USA Today, walked INMA members through USA Today’s four pillars to a successful search programme. One pillar focuses on feedback and studying metrics.
USA Today looks at metrics as a way to close the feedback loop with the audience. Analysing numbers shows media companies where to focus their efforts and where to adjust their strategy.
“The engagement time tells you how impactful you are at conveying your message, how good your journalism is,” Schlosser said.
If a lot of people click and bounce out of the story and don’t actually read it, it’s not a helpful metric. Schlosser wants media companies to know how far their audience is reading and how long they're engaging.
“Two things we always say internally are ‘are you listening’ and ‘be curious,’” Schlosser said. “If you’re curious and you’re listening, you’re going to go a long way in search.”
Amplifying successful content
To engage readers, The Times and The Sunday Times make sure the people who are willing to pay for content continue to want to pay for it. They look at some key metrics like repeat visits and dwell time.
“How many times are people coming back to consume our content, and then how long are they staying with us,” Magnus Cohen, deputy head of digital, explained.
They judge repeat visits by how many people are downloading the app and how many people sign up for newsletters. To increase dwell time, they’ve enabled ways for users to save articles to read later, enabled real name commenting on articles, allowed readers to vote on polls and share articles.
The Times also looks at data that shows what stories readers are willing to pay for. They know a large percentage of the topics are news and world content as well as lifestyle.
“This gives us huge insight on what we should be putting out in terms of social media strategy and how we try to push our content out to those areas,” Cohen said.
Using metrics to understand users’ needs
The journalism product is always the core, but Soraiya Fuda, head of audience development for News Corp Australia, and her team are focused on who will read what, and when. That means “turning into a bit of a chameleon in order to communicate effectively,” she said.
News Corp Australia has its own analytics and database system, called Verity, which tracks in real time everything from pageviews to what subscribers and non-subscribers are reading, to their age range and gender, among other demographics.
Newsrooms can be slow to convert to the analytics and digital mechanisms of the online age, but Verity is set up to encourage reporters and editors to embrace it. Reporters get push notifications and e-mails about the audience traffic and how readers are consuming their work, and in-newsroom screens give an updated look for editors to analyze and discuss.
“We have minute-to-minute deadlines, so we need to respond to the audiences in real time and not sort of hypothesise or spend weeks to come up with what to follow up,” Fuda said.
Combining pageviews, engagement metrics
One of the metrics used by Financial Times is “Quality Reads.” Hannah Sarney, head of audience engagement and executive editor, said the metric is an “estimate of whether someone read at least half of an article,” which gives the team the “quickest sense of whether someone genuinely engaged with the content.”
This metric takes into account the length of the article, the average reading speed, and the time spent on the article. It’s expressed as a percentage of the total readers who clicked through to the story.
One example Sarney shared was about a story that, according to Lantern, had a 67% Quality Reads score from a total of 100,488 pageviews. And, since they “always benchmark everything,” they can measure that 67% against the benchmark for that specific story and know whether that’s a good or bad QR score. (It’s very good, she said.)
Quality Reads is a “sort of combination of pageviews and engagement,” although “it’s a metric I would stress that you do not look at on its own,” she cautioned, adding, “but I would say that for every metric.”