3 news executives share strategies to successfully bring data to the newsroom

By Shelley Seale


Austin, Texas, USA


Audience data analytics equips news media companies with the essential feedback from readers about journalism, experience, and brand. The challenge is this: How do they democratise the use of data in their organisations? This is one of the most frequently asked questions INMA receives, prompting the launch of the new Smart Data Initiative.

In the first Meet-Up of the initiative, INMA Researcher-in-Residence Greg Piechota brought in executives from USA Today in the United States, Mediahuis in Belgium, and Lensing Media in Germany to discuss this issue and their experiences with INMA members.

Piechota opened the Meet-Up by asking INMA members in attendance what main challenges they face in democratising data in your newsroom and beyond. The poll results are below:

This poll conducted of INMA members reveals their main challenges with newsroom data.
This poll conducted of INMA members reveals their main challenges with newsroom data.

USA Today: Making data work throughout your organisation

Josh Awtry, senior director for news strategy at the USA Today Network, said the biggest challenge his organisation faces is connecting data to the right actions.

“You can have a million real-time dashboards up in your room. You can have daily spreadsheets. But the tough thing is figuring out how to make that data turn into real newsroom intelligence that journalists actually listen to.”

Awtry acknowledged that different media organisations are at different spaces on the journey with data. The basic needs for shared data, he continued, lie in three areas:

  • Real-time, where the newsroom can see what’s happening in the moment.
  • Strategic long-term, with a stable repository of long-term trends.
  • Taxonomical, to understand the underlying connection between successful content.

He cautioned that every data piece and process has a flaw: “They all show you the best thing right now — which stories are getting the most pageviews, the top 10 converting stories, the things that are most successful. The most important part of the list is the bottom of the list, because that tells you where your resources are being allocated and the stuff you’re producing that people aren’t reading.”

 The other big piece is what are the metrics that matter? What metrics drive success?

Gannett, which owns USA Today, has been working with its journalists in the last year on weighing their stories in four different segments:

  • Reach: Anonymous users, which are Gannett’s new prospects. Every subscriber starts here, and filling this bucket ensures new readers are starting on the journey.
  • Engagement: Loyal anonymous users who are starting to form a habit, visiting a second time in one week. Cultivating this relationship ensures they are not attracting fly-by readers.
  • Conversion: Subscribers are direct supporters who have made the leap to paying for content. Ensuring a growing number of subscribers visit every day will track against acquisition goals.
  • Retention: Loyal subscribers ensure paying readers find value in the journalism. The biggest difference between someone who keeps a subscription and someone who ends it is frequency of use.

These four funnel KPIs each serve a purpose to further the organisation’s goals. “This really exposes weaknesses, because every organisation [in the Gannett network] will see where their gaps in the funnel are,” Awtry said.

As the company pivots to digital subscriptions, the team has found that tracking them by content is a grey area. They are currently using session-based attribution, but he noted that no attribution model gives a full picture.

Tracking digital subscriptions by content is still a grey area, said Josh Awtry of USA Today.
Tracking digital subscriptions by content is still a grey area, said Josh Awtry of USA Today.

“The most important piece is the world does not need more dashboards,” Awtry said. “Chances are you do not need more spreadsheets and reports. Chances are your journalists are drowning in data.”

What a media organisation needs are experts who can parse the data and convert it into action. USA Today used journalists for this, making it their full-time job. They make sure the data experts have time, credibility, authority, expertise, and a mandate.

The content strategy team’s job is to:

  • Advise the top editors to focus on improvements and readership trends.
  • Lead training efforts on audience.
  • Go one-on-one with journalists or teams to help map beats, coach journalists, and improve the assigning process.
  • Ensure the team focuses on the right work by uncovering trends on high-converting articles and train on work that readers don’t value.
  • Pollinate and link to product and data teams.

“We look for journalists that are, above all, curious,” Awtry explained about how they put together this team.

Mediahuis: Democratising data and insights

Yves Van Dooren, manager digital traffic center at Mediahuis, spoke about how his company democratises its data. The first question: Why should a newsroom do this?

“For us, it was a no-brainer to take those insights to the newsroom,” he said. Most of the people in the newsroom were excited to see and understand the data, particularly channel managers, audience and product teams, and data analysts — but not everyone was so thrilled.

“Some of them were a little bit hostile, they were like against data,” Van Dooren said. Those in creative roles — reporters, editors, photographers, graphic designers, etc. — were most resistant.

“Not all of them have the same data affinity as the rest of the company, and that’s OK because they need to be creative and we need them to create the best products. What we are focusing on today is that group.”

How did Mediahuis solve that problem? By using the design thinking process.

Mediahuis used the design thinking process when bringing data into its newsroom.
Mediahuis used the design thinking process when bringing data into its newsroom.

When they first introduced data to the newsroom, Van Dooren said they failed to empathise with their audience. They began to interview their journalists to get feedback about their concerns. Those who had been most reluctant to embrace data got a say in the design prototypes for the dashboards.

“The real goal is to make them feel smart about data,” he said. “Because the problem was they didn’t feel OK with what we were showing. It was too complicated. So we listened, and we created stuff based on that feedback and selection of the prototypes.”

An important aspect in data sharing is what KPIs to use. What metrics survive in the newsroom? At Mediahuis, the North Star metric is attention time, and this is very well-accepted by the editorial team.

“Another element that really helped us in democratising our data is a daily digest newsletter,” Van Dooren added. This is limited to just the top five stories, focusing on the North Star metric of attention time.

“When people need more detail, they can click on the e-mail and they have the dashboards at their disposal to dive in.”

Van Dooren wrapped up by sharing six key takeaways:

  • Keep the target audience in mind when democratising data (editorial team).
  • Design your data products as regular products (design thinking).
  • Interview and bring lots of prototypes.
  • Attention time is a well-accepted metric in the newsroom.
  • Keep things as simple as possible.
  • Have clear communication on why data and insights are important.

Lensing Media: Newsroom dashboards and insights

Next, Wofram Kiwit, chief structure officer at Lensing Media, talked about his company’s latest “baby” —  a bot.

With most everyone working from home due to COVID-19, Kiwit said the challenge was how to bring the data to the reporters. Like Mediahuis, Lensing keeps the data it shares with the editorial team very simple, using only one KPI — how many daily active subscribers read an article.

Kiwit shared what this editorial dashboard looks like:

The Lensing Media newsroom analytics dashboard gives detailed feedback to the editorial team.
The Lensing Media newsroom analytics dashboard gives detailed feedback to the editorial team.

However, in addition to the large-screen data, Lensing also offers a pocket dashboard that allows journalists and editors to quickly access the reports on the go via their phones.

“The idea to use this little bot for our democratisation of data was an idea of our trainees,” Kiwit said. “They created this little bot, and now we use it for our reporters.”

Lensing Media reporters can access real-time data on their phones with bot technology.
Lensing Media reporters can access real-time data on their phones with bot technology.

Using a simple data push tool, reporters can easily access insights such as daily team goals, best content team performers, and number of articles written.

“You are chief of your own data,” he explained.

About Shelley Seale

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