Successful media entrepreneurs know loyal and engaged customers lead to increased growth in customers and profits for their enterprise. Digital metrics offer media organizations unprecedented insights into audience habits, but must be used wisely to avoid publishing dubious content and “clickbait” that ultimately erodes trust in and loyalty to a news organization. In this case study, Rick Thames – who led newsrooms as an executive editor at The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina and the Wichita Eagle in Kansas – explores how news organizations can use metrics to understand both the needs and expectations of its readers.

For most of my nearly 40 years in journalism, people in our profession have worked to answer an ever-present question: “What is it that readers really want from us?”

It hasn’t helped that newspapers historically have been known for doing it all. Ask any editor who has tried to discontinue a bridge column or dared to drop a city from dozens listed on the weather page. There was at least some audience for every item we moved to eliminate. And that audience protested. Loudly.

Rick Thames, former executive editor of The Charlotte Observer and The Wichita Eagle.

Now comes the digital age, an era in which we can actually measure how large that audience is. And believe me, this changes everything. Nothing that came before to gauge reader engagement compares to what we can now learn through digital metrics.

I should know. Newspapers I’ve helped lead spent decades conducting surveys, holding focus groups and interviewing readers individually. We scanned emails, watched online comments and even squinted to make out scribbled remarks on cancellation notices.

The Observer was so intent on unlocking this mystery that it named me its first “public editor” in the early 1990s. My mission: to find out what mattered to readers and help our newsroom meet those needs.

We did become more reader-focused. All newspapers did. But the limitations of our research still nagged us. It is only human nature, after all, for people to tell you what they’d like to be known for reading. We suspected all along that it was not always what they actually read.

Now we do know what readers read. More specifically, our technology can show us how many people are reading our digital journalism, what led them to it, what state or country they live in, how long they stay with a story, what device they are using and much, much more.

That is both liberating and terrifying for journalists, who have forever trusted their gut instincts to make editorial decisions.

They are liberated from a lot of guesswork, and at a critical time. Most newsrooms now struggle to match coverage priorities with shrinking resources. Year after year, editors and publishers have pared back on journalists and beats, restructured what remained and prayed they haven’t nicked an artery.

Using metrics, newsrooms can now see where readers need them, and just as importantly, where they don’t. That helps newsrooms make better use of their resources. Metrics also offer a digital parallel to print circulation figures. Our audiences now are measured story by story — rather than by copies, or even visits to a website. Financial success relies largely on that moment when a news consumer stops, mid-scroll, to read a story posted on Facebook or Twitter — or perhaps discovers the story through a search.

The Limitations of Metrics

Each time a story soars or sinks, readers are speaking to us more clearly than at any time before in the history of journalism. “Please, we need more of this.” Or, “Hey, there’s nothing here that’s relevant to me!”

But even this kind of insight has its limitations, and all of journalism needs to take those limitations into account.

First, the obvious. Digital metrics don’t necessarily explain the wants and needs of print readers. Comics and crossword puzzles, for example, do little to drive digital traffic, but they have encouraged many to faithfully subscribe in print. If you want to reconsider your print strategy, you still need to rely largely on what readers tell you in focus groups and interviews.

It is also a fact that digital metrics only measure what newsrooms already provide readers. So, the most relevant issue in your community at any given time could be one you’ve yet to address. That means journalists must stay in touch with their communities as much as ever to detect emerging or shifting interests and needs.

Journalists must also maintain the courage and confidence to put forward issues and ideas that have occurred to no one other than themselves. They are in a better position than most in their communities to be first to spot these moments. They have a First Amendment responsibility to exercise their editorial independence -— even independence from a majority of readers.

All that said, metrics provide amazing insight that has already triggered a reboot in many newsrooms.

The work began inside my former newsroom at the Observer in 2016 and 2017. We reviewed all topics we covered and compared them with the topics readers as a whole read most frequently, according to our metrics. We then realigned our staff to focus on news that was clearly more relevant to their lives.

We also set up the room to enable both editors and reporters to monitor the ebb and flow of audiences, story by story, minute by minute. The public’s interest in a topic, after all, can rise and fall within a matter of hours. (This morning it was snowing and readers could not get enough on cancellations and road conditions. This afternoon, the sun was out and that snow was nothing more than a nice video.)

Tools that are relatively new to newsrooms make this possible. They include Chartbeat (which measures traffic in real time), Omniture (ideal for tracking traffic patterns over an extended period) and the American Press Institute’s “Metrics for News” (a sophisticated analysis of traffic based on a variety of content characteristics).

Finding a Content Balance

To take advantage of these tools, you must reinvent age-old work routines, which is no easy task. Deadline is NOW, for example, and every minute that follows. No news that is competitive is held back. Search and social media are as integral to success as a strong headline or story lead.

But the cultural shift needed to embrace metrics as a guide to content decisions is even tougher. Newsrooms have a long and proud history as the “gatekeepers” of news. While most journalists readily acknowledge they no longer influence the news in this way, it’s another thing altogether to imply reader-driven metrics actually can help explain what is news.

So it was no surprise that the journalists in our newsroom quickly zeroed in on real and imagined perils. Left to themselves, wouldn’t readers simply feast on the gratuitous, the bizarre, the embarrassingly weird? And why wouldn’t we reward them with still more of that if we saw ever-larger audiences flocking to the lowest common denominator?

Other journalists predicted important stories would be abandoned to make way for the sensational. “Look at the web,” they said. Standards just aren’t what they were when print reigned. The public simply wants to be entertained. Who needs a story about a school board meeting when a train wreck or cat video will do?

Turns out, they weren’t voicing anything that hadn’t also worried me. Nor did I miss the surprising twist to this moment. For our entire professional lives, we had longed to see inside our readers’ heads. Now that we were this close, we feared what we would find.

I recalled my stint as public editor in the 1990s. I urged our journalists then to talk to readers one-on-one to understand them better. One did, then returned to me later and said, half-joking: “I’ve met our readers and, well, I don’t really like them. Now what?”

My advice then was the same as it is now: You are a journalist. Your charge is to discover the truth. I refuse to believe that it is a bad thing for journalists to discover more about their readers. It is what the journalists do in response that matters.

Take the public’s fascination with bizarre stories. We’ve always known those stories had appeal. Most newspapers regularly gave a corner of their front page over to such “talkers” because they knew they were popular. We just didn’t know how popular, until now.

But had we simply filled our front pages with news of the strange, I strongly believe readers would have demanded news of the important. That is something they need if we are to remain a free and self-governing society. Don’t think for a minute that readers don’t realize this.

That said, our readers have more ways than ever to fill their free time. If our content comes off like homework that they will never need in real life, many will scroll right past us on their Facebook and Twitter feeds. Accept that reality, and use metrics to understand what is being read, and what is not. Then ask, “Why?”

And when readers skip over something truly important? It is our responsibility to frame that content in ways that help them see the importance. That has always been part of our job as journalists. The only difference now is that we know when we succeed, and when we don’t.

Reframing Beats and Workflow

As I write, the Observer newsroom has relaunched its beats, guided by its growing understanding of metrics. The changes vary widely, from essentially the same beats we had before to completely new beats aimed at intense interest in topics we were barely covering.

One of those new beats, which we dubbed “Corporate Charlotte,” centers on the life, culture and issues inside Charlotte’s biggest employers. Among the reframed beats is public schools. That reporter now simply looks for the most reader-relevant local stories in education.

Thames with the newsroom staff of The Charlotte Observer.

Newsrooms taking this approach will reach a metric moment of truth when a cherished beat turns out to have a relatively small audience. A parallel to the print world might be a weekly feature with little to no readership. Do they stop that coverage? Reframe or merge it with another beat? Or keep the coverage because they believe it is still a valuable public service?

When the Observer reached this point, it helped us to ask: Is this something that readers can, and are, getting elsewhere? Or is it something that no one else will do if we don’t?

Take investigative reporting, for example. Story for story, it tends to get strong readership. But such stories are published infrequently because of the time required to produce them. So, the cumulative traffic for an investigative beat won’t necessarily match the traffic for other beats.

Yet this kind of reporting is a vital public service, not to mention a responsibility protected by the First Amendment. If not us, who will do this? No question, we would continue our investigative reporting.

Fine arts content (classical music, books, dance, visual arts, drama) rarely draws a web audience of any size in Charlotte. Sadly, this reflects the reality of many fine-arts organizations now striving to find new audiences. But most would agree that the fine arts are valuable to our community. They enrich our lives. That said, could this niche audience find the content elsewhere?

Only on a limited basis, it turns out. And while some Charlotte arts organizations have social media sites that provide basic event information, none offer in-depth reporting or arts criticism. So, the Observer has continued to provide those elements of arts coverage as a public service, at least on a freelance basis.

Can the Observer cover everything that anyone cares about? No, as much as its journalists wish they could. The truth is, newspapers could never do that, even when they were media monopolies. That’s all the more reason now to consult metrics now to help make the best coverage decisions.

Can this approach be taken to unhealthy extremes? Can it invite misleading headlines and content of dubious value? You bet it can. In fact, this already happens every day on the web. Some sources will do anything to make you click, and so they post content that merely serves as “clickbait.” It’s a con and the fastest way I know to lose credibility with readers.

We need journalists with the integrity to resist such exploitation. We also need journalists with the courage to tell readers things they didn’t care to know, regardless of what metrics show — journalists who will not rest until their readers understand an issue that is critical to their lives, however boring it may seem on the surface.

Sure, making key decisions on the basis of metrics is a lot to ask of a newsroom. But when you think about it, so was the tradition of expecting journalists to trust their gut instincts.

Instincts, alone, worked pretty well during the first 400 years of daily journalism. Adding metrics responsibly should help journalists do an even better job for the public.

Rick Thames retired as executive editor of The Charlotte Observer in the spring of 2017. He teaches journalism history, ethics and entrepreneurial journalism in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte. 


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