Digital Innovation Digital Publishing
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How to incorporate editorial analytics into your media organization

Ten-hut! It is clear as the sun rises that the battle for readers’ attention is fierce and continues to gather momentum. 

Forging on without reliable editorial analytics is like trying to storm an enemy perimeter with nothing but your bare hands. 

Newsrooms need to find a way to understand how their stories resonate with their audience in order to make actionable decisions – something that goes well beyond the analytic capabilities of one-dimensional tools like Omniture, Google Analytics, Facebook Insights, and the like. 

So how do newsrooms incorporate more nuanced editorial analytics into their organization and enter that battle with guns blazing? (Spoiler alert: it’s all about attitude to change)

At the precipice, we change

Although the notion of adopting new technologies looks very appealing on paper, the reality is different: users are often resistant to change. 

Perhaps Newton’s First Law of motion might have something to do with it: unless acted on by an external force, inertia will continue to do what it does best – nothing. But we’ve all seen plenty of instances where even though the consequences of our actions may be dire (i.e. accelerating climate change), change itself does not come easily. So why is that?

Well, the reasons for resisting change vary based on the cultural context as well as the scale of the proposed changes, but fear of uncertainty is often at the root of this resistance. 

And yet, failing to accept new challenges in terms of connecting with audiences and building online communities doesn’t bode well either for today’s media organizations. In fact, no one can take their audience for granted these days – partly due to trust in media being compromised – and partly due to the fact that relying on simple, quantitative metrics does very little to ascertain where that relationship currently stands. 

This goes to show that the context in which media organizations should operate today is fundamentally shifting, and so is the way in which we should think about change. 

Disruption has become the natural state of modern-day business, something that comes from a better understanding of readers’ behavior, and not necessarily from the technology itself. Or as James Harding – co-founder of “slow newsroom” Tortoise Media – predicted in a 2016 Reuters report, “the challenge of effectively using data about how content is being consumed will be central for journalism moving forward.” 

So if the ability to break the status quo is becoming a source of competitive advantage and data literacy is the beacon that guides future decision-making, how do we successfully manage change? 

Staying light on one’s feet

Interestingly enough, a recent study about why CEOs get fired found that the primary reason was that they were not perceived to have the ability to successfully manage change. Being able to lead through change is no longer an optional skill – it is essential. 

But given the reality and pace of how people do business today, the very notion that change can be managed seems somehow absurd, doesn’t it? We see this a lot in newsrooms. While it’s true that more and more editors are leveraging analytics to their fullest, there are still a significant number for whom analytics are inconsequential or – at best – something that’s just nice-to-have. 

So how do you help your traditional editorial team overcome that skepticism and turn it into an analytics-driven operation?

Well, if newsrooms are going to make more data-informed decisions (and on that basis engage their audience more effectively), first they need to develop a culture where journalists and editors – and not just the audience team – know how to make sense of all that data and, consequently, how to act on it. This may be a hard pill to swallow for some, but considering that since 2008 the number of digital-native newsroom employees has increased by almost 80 percent, data literacy is becoming the fulcrum upon which company balance turns.

Another important factor is that analytics will never cease to evolve, so journalists need to be part of its development process if they are to develop metrics that effectively underpin editorial priorities. Analytics in a newsroom context wasn’t after all something initially dreamed up by editors. Back when the digital age ushered in the potential to monitor and track interactions, it was those within the advertising and marketing realms who used these tools. Things have moved fast, and it’s important to grab a seat at the table to ensure that editorial analytics work for you and your newsroom too. We know this first hand. After all, Content Insights was borne from our CEO’s frustration at not being able to find the right tools for the job.

Furthermore, according to a Forbes article about coping with the death of traditional change management, three critical shifts are fundamentally reshaping how change should be perceived (with our own little commentaries):

  • From point-in-time to all-the-time. Change is no longer defined by a time frame – it has no beginning or end. It is ever-continuous and constantly picking up speed. In fact, it has been estimated that, on average, employees now experience three major changes each year, and nearly three-quarters of organizations expect that the number of change initiatives will continue to rise in the next few years. 
  • From analog to digital. With the advent of AI and data science, newsrooms need a broader rethinking of the future of their work. No doubt, many jobs will be replaced by computers and machines, but this period of immense dislocation also necessitates smart management. The need for talent with advanced technical skills is far outstripping supply, so newsrooms that cultivate the ability to retrain their workforce in analytics skills on an ongoing basis will have even greater chances of success.
  • From fixed to flexible. The practice of moonlighting is creating a labor market characterized by nontraditional, independent and short-term working relationships. As a result, organizations’ boundaries are becoming more permeable and ecosystems that focus on introducing new kinds of talent, flexible working arrangements, and external contractors and advisors will definitely have the upper hand. 

While change is often viewed as the ‘new normal’, in this day and age, that nonetheless comes with profound implications: it requires that we adjust to a future in which change cannot and should not be ‘managed’ but rather embraced. This ‘new normal’ should no longer be defined by risk, fear and avoidance but rather by possibility, agility and opportunity. 

Incorporating editorial analytics into your culture

Achieving fluency in ‘data’ requires organizational, technical and, most importantly, cultural change. Although all three components are necessary parts of the system, having the right data tools and apps or the capacity to build expertise will not serve its purpose properly until a pro-data culture in the newsroom is established. Tools and experts can be paid for and hired, but laying the foundation upon which data literacy can be built goes beyond the reliance on money. 

“It’s all about a cultural shift,” says De Persgroep’s Roy Wassink. “The use of data might not be something that comes naturally to journalists and editors, and although vanity metrics are certainly useful in bringing data to the newsroom, they are not what it should be about.”

So how do we create a culture that embraces editorial analytics?

The first step is to direct employees’ attention to the benefits of understanding and strategically utilizing data. 

Complex editorial analytics represent a giant leap in news organizations’ capacity to understand the media environment in which they operate. Media organizations have – historically – typically focused more on the commercial side of business, but even the most sophisticated editorial analytics were far from insightful. They gave very little information about the behavior of audiences and users often mistook clicks and Pageviews as a sign of popularity. In truth, such data never told the full story, thus prompting the quantitative analytics to be supplemented by various metrics that reveal qualitative, more nuanced consumption of content. 

The second step involves not only making that shift from rudimentary, off-the-shelf analytics to tailored editorial analytics but also having a keen awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of even the best available analytics on today’s market. 

The purpose of good analytics is to complement editorial judgment with analysis of the best available quantitative audience data – not to introduce a tyranny of numbers. Or as the new American Press Institute report, published earlier this year put it: “metrics should be viewed as an opportunity for experimentation, rather than a report card measuring a journalist’s performance.”

Lastly, newsrooms should always keep in their collective mind that editorial analytics serve to help journalists reach people. Analytics have the potential to not only report how content is being read, but also pinpoint its impact. Being able to discover how a piece resonates is a subtle shift with massive implications.

Without this, newsrooms risk losing out in the ever-more intense competition for attention.

Complement your uniqueness

Although media organizations are increasingly turning to analytics to drive their editorial strategy, just having access to all that data is not enough to triumph. Remember: a tool is only as good as its user. Knowing how to interpret the data and act on it remains the crucial piece of the puzzle.

For instance, Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) has successfully managed to incorporate editorial analytics into their day-to-day routine – and broader newsroom culture. They accomplished this by clearly defining processes but also by establishing open channels of communication between the analytics department and the newsroom. “Demonstrating how an article harnesses engagement and loyalty is great for the editorial team and helps everyone improve their output,” says Philipp Bojen, SZ’s head of SEO and analytics.

Of course, everything depends on the publication’s business model and content goals. This call to arms doesn’t abide by the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Every newsroom is unique, which means the analytics solution should be tailored to complement that uniqueness. 

by Marko Dorić