Why journalists should love live website statistics

This is a dime. I say newsrooms CAN turn on one of these.

This is a dime. I say newsrooms CAN turn on one of these.

I promise that I found a lot to like about Stijn Debrouwere’s speech on website statistics in newsrooms. But before we get to this, another nit. Here’s Debrouwere:

Imagine your newsroom has been pumping out articles about the papal election, yet it turns out that the article readers are clicking on is one about the civil war in Syria. Thank God, you can finally stop writing about the goddamned pope because people don’t care anyway. You can commission a new piece on Syria, perhaps even tailored to people’s exact search terms so you’re not just writing about what they care about, you’re answering their questions too. I think that’s incredibly useful information to have, information you can act on, right now.

Except I’ve never seen a news organization that has a workflow that would allow them to routinely respond to their readers’ behavior right now. Content farms seem to be the only content producers with that capability.

If the pace at which you receive new metrics outstrips the pace at which you can change your newsroom’s priorities, then what’s the point? People may care about Syria today, but tomorrow they will have moved on.

This is how live analytics are being leveraged in the newsroom:

“Hmm. It looks like the horse meat scandal’s exploded, it’s all over the web and our readers can’t get enough of it. Good to know. I’ll give a shout to the editor next week when he’s back from vacation so we can maybe do a follow-up.”

Good thing live analytics were there to save the day, aye?

No one loves a good sarcastic takedown of newsroom stupidity more than me. But I don’t recognize the newsroom Debrouwere’s talking about.

I was ecstatic the day Advance Digital rolled out Parse.ly Dash, a live-statistics tool, for all the Advance cities. My exuberance must have rubbed off; Advance said The Plain Dealer’s newsroom quickly rose toward the top in Dash use. And that’s in a newsroom that was still very skeptical of Advance and of online in general.

We didn’t just use the stats; we acted on them. The first day, we saw that a five-year-old wire story (it carries a PD byline, but that’s a remnant of a bug in a site upgrade) was suddenly getting strong traffic. It hardly took long to do a Google search and see that the woman in that wire story was back in the news because of a face transplant, and then to throw up an aggregation post about that, cross-linking with the older story and the extensive coverage we’d given to a face transplant in Cleveland.

In more usual uses, we saw traffic draining from posts about stories that were still doing well in social media, and were able to use that to push reporters to provide updates, or to come up on our own with aggregation or other folos. We could rewrite the headlines in our homepage promo boxes and see immediately whether they did better than the old ones. We could spot small stories doing good numbers and use that to push for more in-depth reporting later that day. Editors began to use the stats that came in during the day to help decide what to play up in the next morning’s newspaper. (I am not completely endorsing that last part. You have to consider exactly why a story’s doing well, and whether it’s as a good a fit with the print audience, a day after the fact.)

Debrouwere talks about newsrooms having a “cargo cult” approach to website stats, and the numbers that roll in from a live tool are definitely addictive. Dash’s main dashboard highlights the most-viewed stories of the last 10 minutes, constantly updated. Especially at first, it was common for some people to get lost in watching the stories float up and down the list, watching Dash tick off the number of views added every five seconds. That’s not productive. But then, neither is staring at Facebook, and that happens in newsrooms, too.

Debrouwere’s example sneers at the idea that a newsroom which regularly covers foreign affairs could suddenly pump out a new story about Syria. But of course, it can: By creating a live blog that aggregates what’s being reported. By putting up a post asking readers what their questions are, and tracking down answers. By being inspired to create a bigger gallery of photos from the fighting. Etc., etc., etc.

My biggest problem with Debrouwere’s speech, as a message to journalists, is that newsrooms are already uncomfortable with numbers. It’s a cliche, but not a false one, that reporters are often not good with numbers. And the numbers they get from site statistics are most often not welcomed by people who’ve been living with the pleasant fiction of having hundreds of thousands of people reading their stories. With all of that built-in resistance, we shouldn’t give newsrooms yet another reason to ignore statistics.

It’s true that reporters may have some good reasons to be wary. The relationship between journalists and performance measures is not happy. The city editor at my first paper would collect from the newspaper morgue every month the small manila envelopes that contained each reporter’s clips. He would measure the thickness of each envelope with a ruler. Rather than inspiring great journalism, this taught us to play the system. My colleague Jerry Helfand talked about having a “dead horse” folder in our computer system where he kept eight inches worth of background on various stories, so he could earn a “peanut” — a story long enough to get a byline and be put into the clip envelope — with only a lede and one other paragraph of updated info. (Jerry later went on to the law and then financial trading, where I’m sure he never ran into any questionable practices.)

But that’s not a reason to avoid stats; it’s a reason to teach reporters and editors to use them wisely. Which Debrouwere does provide some help with, as I’ll discuss tomorrow.

This series started with an argument in favor of using site stats dashboards in the newsroom.

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