Measuring impact: Metrics for engaged and valuable news

By Lindsay Robinson

robinson engagement graphic


As journalism evolves in today’s digital information landscape, newsrooms increasingly are focusing on audience engagement.

However, news organizations are limited in ways to measure this engagement. Metrics like pageviews and bounce rates fail in many ways to reflect the impact and value of stories to audiences. A high click rate can’t tell us whether the information was useful to a community.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of engagement to measure is the most meaningful one — how much impact does our work have in the offline world? Is our work starting conversations? Changing public opinion?

“Journalists want to make a difference,” Lauren Fuhrmann, the associate director of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, said. “They like to see that their work is actually having an impact in the world. It’s the reason that we’re all doing our job.”

Some media organizations are seeking new ways to measure the attention their content is receiving, and more importantly how that content affects the lives of readers.

The Engaging News Project, a program housed at the University of Texas at Austin, works with online newsrooms of all sizes to help them effectively engage their audiences.

“A lot of news organizations still struggle mightily to grasp the basic metrics,” Alex Curry, a research associate for the Engaging News Project, said. “Their resources are very stretched.”

Curry said that one way to track the real-world impact of an article is by using a common vanity metric, bounce rates (when a reader leaves your page), in an uncommon way. Bounce rates can be useful if newsrooms can pay attention to where readers are looking once they leave the site.

“Say I write an article about voter registration,” Curry said. “If I see that of the people who read the article, for 10 percent their next web page was a Google search for voter registration areas, then there’s something to be said.”

In 2015, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism developed an analytics platform called NewsLynx that can help newsrooms track this process . NewsLynx helps newsrooms analyze their stories, while trying to put performance metrics into meaningful context.

Using NewsLynx and other tactics, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism keeps track of its ongoing impact in the real world, listing the actions and influences of their stories on its site. Fuhrmann has been documenting how the organization’s stories are used and mentioned since 2010.

She says that getting the entire newsroom involved is key to measuring impact in this way. Reporters use a form developed by Lindsay Green-Barber at The Center for Investigative Reporting to record the ways stories influenced people or had an impact in some way.

If a story leads to a published editorial, a community organizing or a change in policy, reporters can log those instances using the impact tracker form.

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The WCIJ Impact Tracker allows reporters to quickly record instances of impact, which are then entered into a comprehensive analytics database. The Impact Tracker is currently used by 10 news organizations to gain a better understanding of their influence in the offline world. (Source: WCIJ, Impact Tracker designed by Lindsay Green-Barber)

“The reporters are the ones who really have their fingers on the pulse of all their different beats,” Fuhrmann said. “They know what’s going on, what’s being talked about on social media, and what’s being shared by different advocacy groups, so we encourage reporters to share that information with us.”

Green-Barber designed the impact tracker to help newsrooms better understand the influence of their work, and 10 newsrooms currently use the open-source platform. The database provides an interactive timeline of key impact moments at any level, allowing newsrooms to get a better glimpse of why a story might have been successful and building qualitative data sets around their content.

Impact tracking systems like this help ease the resource-heavy burden often associated with tracking instances of real world change.

By developing effective ways to measure and report on the impact content has, Green-Barber hopes that newsrooms can improve and foster relationships with audiences.

“One of the challenges these days in journalism is that right now the general public has very low opinion of media,” she said. “But if we can focus on community activation, grassroots organizing, new network formation, whatever it is, it’s worth reporting back to our audience about. I think that will help build a better relationship with audiences and help bring some of the trust back in.”

Whether it is tracking a reader’s web navigation process or cataloging references to a story, it is critical for newsrooms to develop new ways to measure the real world impact of their work. As metrics like pageviews tell us less about our readers, measuring meaning will become increasingly invaluable to the future of journalism.


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