UK start-ups are going beyond engagement, measuring journalism impact

By Greg Piechota

INMA

Oxford, United Kingdom

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Sifted, an U.K.-based news publisher covering European tech, uses machine learning to quantify and maximise its readers’ knowledge about fintech, venture capital, and other subjects. 

How it started

Backed by the Financial Times, Sifted has been reporting on the U.K. and European start-ups since 2017. It reaches 1 million unique visitors monthly, offering a mix of breaking news and in-depth articles for paying members. 

Sifted measures engagement with a conventional set of metrics such as RFV scores for users, and pageviews, dwell time, and scroll depth for articles. 

“These metrics look at our readers’ experience from the publisher’s point of view. We wondered how to measure the value readers get from reading,” said CEO Caspar Woolley in an interview with INMA. 

What is new

Last winter, Sifted teamed up with Crux, a U.K.-based tech start-up, and launched the Knowledge Tracker feature.

  1. Scoring articles: Crux mines Sifted’s articles using Natural Language Processing to score their relative importance within a topic and the amount of new insights they deliver.

  1. Scoring users: It tracks the reading history of each user to estimate her knowledge level in any given topic and gains from reading additional articles.

  1. Recommender system: It recommends new and old articles, ranked based on their knowledge score, so the user can maximise the value of time spent reading.

“I like the gamification element: People can see their score increasing while reading and how any new article on the topic decreases the score,” said Woolley. “The next step will be a dashboard for users, so they can see scores for all favourite topics and perhaps even compare with friends or teams.”

Why it matters

According to Woolley, the knowledge-based recommender system increased the number of articles viewed by readers by 55%. Those exposed to the Knowledge Tracker also registered at a higher rate, and the uplift was 16%.

Assessing the impact of journalism is a widely debated subject in itself. Although many agree the purpose of journalism is to have an impact, they agree less on how to measure it. 

  • The work of journalists is the easiest to measure by activities and outputs.

  • The quality of journalists’ outputs is trickier to measure and includes checks of adhering to the craft standards, metrics of user engagement, and recognition by peers, e.g., citations and awards.

  • The impact of journalism on individuals, society, and institutions is the hardest to quantify.

A review of papers and essays of academics and industry thinkers, such as Lindsay Green-BarberRasmus Kleis NielsenRobert PicardRichard Tofel, and Ethan Zuckerman, finds two common approaches:

  • Measuring individuals’ gains in knowledge and attitudes, e.g., with surveys measuring awareness, understanding or their well-being before and after the news. Sifted with Crux found a way to automate such measurement for readers, although without considering effects of other sources of information. 

  • Measuring actions by stakeholders, e.g., affected individuals signing a petition or making a donation, or decision makers who influence the status quo, e.g., making statements, changing decisions in individual cases or changing policies. Some of these can be measured with media monitoring tools.

The big picture

Sifted’s new knowledge-tracking metric is an example of a broader trend in business, in which data leads to new revenue models.

In a 2020 book The Ends Game, two marketing professors, Marco Bertini and Oded Koenigsberg, described how smart companies stopped selling products (“the means”) and started selling value instead (“the ends”). They asked: “Would you rather pay for health care or better health? School or education? Car or transportation?”

Professors Bertini and Koenigsberg broke down revenue models by the stage of a customer journey that companies charged for and analysed how much value customers derived from purchases at each stage.

  • Access models: Companies charge for “the means,” their physical products and services, and a promise “the ends” customers desire will follow. For example, an advertiser buys an ad in a printed newspaper.

  • Consumption models: Companies still charge for “the means,” but differentiate prices based on actual use. For example, one pays only for ads viewed or clicked by a consumer.

  • Performance models: Companies charge for “the ends” or outcomes. For example, an advertiser pays only for the sales attributed to an ad.

What’s next

Professors Bertini and Koenigsberg saw the new consumption and performance models rise as a direct result of digitisation. Easier than ever, companies can collect, analyse, and interpret data on when and how consumers use products and services and on how well these offerings actually perform.

In the context of reader revenue, newspaper publishers indeed shifted from selling access to printed goods to selling news online as a service. 

Many subscription models are based on metering use of content or features. All leading publishers track engagement, and they see conversion and retention is mostly an outcome of engagement.

While Sifted has found a way to measure gains in knowledge of its readers, its paywall is still triggered by a simple article count and pricing is based on access.

Bottom-line

The case of Sifted in the U.K. showed how advances in data analytics led to a discovery of new metrics, helping to assess the impact of news products. In other industries, the impact metrics led to innovative revenue models.

Want to learn more? 

Sifted’s CEO Caspar Woolley is speaking at the INMA Product and Data For Media Summit on Thursday, October 14.

If you’d like to subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter, INMA members can do so here.

About Greg Piechota

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