Journalism and analytics: A starter’s guide

The use of analytics is now entrenched in news practice. But do journalists really understand how to utilize them? Maybe not…based on the sea of material I’m  reading for my PhD literature review. So, to help those who need or want to know more about how analytics work and their impact on news practice, I thought I’d share some resources.

For an Overview

Reuters Digital News Project 2016 outlines how a variety of media outlets are using analytics and identifies some key factors in their successful use:

  • the most effective practice is to create analytics tools specific to each organization
  • editorial judgment is still needed alongside analysis of quantitative data
  • digital/data use has to be supported by the entire organization if it’s going to be effective.

One issue, though, acknowledged by the authors, is that people interviewed for this report are “active promoters” of digital. To really get a sense of how journalists are dealing with and feeling about the influx of metrics on the job, different sources are required.

A warning, I’m about to recommend some academic papers. If theory isn’t your thing, skim over the lit reviews and methodology and jump into the discussion/conclusion sections. They’re worth the read.

View from the Newsroom

Petre’s The Traffic Factories  and Anderson’s look at local U.S. newsrooms give specific insights into the issues journalists face incorporating the use of metrics into their routines, and the benefits and pitfalls of doing so. One of the primary concerns addressed by both is measuring popularity versus quality. As Petre wrote,

At a time when data analytics are increasingly valorized, we must take care not to equate what is quantifiable with what is valuable. (pg. 4)

Gatekeeping

Gatekeeping, or, simply put, story selection, is a long-standing media theory with great relevance to the understanding of the use of analytics. Tandoc’s Journalism is Twerking? looks at the impact of analytics on story selection at three online outlets that were all part of a larger newspaper organization. He found that “journalism is changing because of quantifiable and immediate feedback from the audience” (pg. 572).

I believe the use of analytics is a form of reverse-gatekeeping, where the audience helps determine content based on past choices, a hypothesis supported by Vu’s research.  For a broader look, though, check your library for Gatekeeping in Transition. It’s a good, quick read with specific examples of how analytics are impacting the gatekeeping process. Like this worst case scenario offered in a chapter from Phillips:

News desks now closely follow the analytics telling them exactly what words audiences are clicking on. One interviewee mentioned a directive to produce as many stories as possible that could include the word “breasts,” as this is a word that is often searched for online. (pg. 74)

How to use analytics

As a counter-point to the flagrant click-baiting Phillips addresses, Hindman offers suggestions in his paper on “stickiness.”  In basic terms, stickiness refers to your site’s ability to hold its audience, and you can get more “sticky” using a number of strategies:

  • improving loading times
  • frequently updating content
  • and optimizing sites for social media.

You could also check out this open-source video series I developed with Ryerson University that outlines the very basic use of analytics. If you’re an educator, you can use it as a module in a course; there are quizzes at the end of each video.

Constant updates

If you want to consistently stay in the loop, I’d recommend signing up for Media Shift’s Media Metrics Roundup. Or you can just explore Media Shift for articles like this one on how newsrooms are using, or not using, analytics.

This is a small window into the analytics material available. I’ll be following up with more information and analysis as I continue my lit review and begin interviews with journalists at a variety of media outlets here in Canada and internationally. Stay tuned.

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