The use of data and analytics to track audience behavior is becoming increasingly more central in newsrooms around the world. A data-informed approach, once associated with brands like BuzzFeed or Gawker, is now making inroads in organizations like the Guardian, Die Welt or the BBC. But significant gaps remain in how different newsrooms use analytics for editorial purposes.

A new study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism analyzes how a range of different newsrooms across Europe and North America are developing their use of analytics – systematic analysis of quantitative data on audience behavior – as part of the battle for attention.

The first and most evident sign of the rise of analytics in newsrooms around the world is the spread of tools to track audiences. Many newsrooms employ some sort of off-the-shelf tools and gather real-time traffic insights, which they often use in an ad-hoc manner to help increase day-to-day traffic and reach.

In many cases though, this generic approach – focused on short-term optimization goals – pretty much summarizes the organization’s analytics strategy.

A few leading organizations in the US and in the UK – closely followed by a few market leaders in continental Europe – are paving the way by developing a form of editorial analytics that is tailored to the needs of the organization. These outlets combine the use of the right tools with an organizational structure and a newsroom culture that are focused on making data relevant and comprehensible throughout the newsrooms, turning numbers into actionable insights that inform the editorial strategy.

These forms of editorial analytics differ from more rudimentary and generic approaches through three main characteristics: they are aligned with the editorial priorities and organizational imperatives of the news outlet, they are used to inform both short-term day-to-day decision as well as long-term strategic goals, they are in constant evolution to keep pace with the changing media environment.

A Culture of Data 

In all best-practice cases analytics are rooted in the newsroom. Having all journalists understand the strengths and weaknesses of data and how they can inform editorial decision-making is a crucial part of an organization’s analytics approach. Developing a “culture of data” in the newsrooms is about making sure that journalists and editors who are not part of the audience team are given access to data that is relevant to them, know why and know how to act on them.

If data is available but ignored or mostly used to validate decisions already made for other reasons, the culture does not underpin editorial analytics. In order for the culture to underpin editorial analytics, data needs to be taken seriously as one of several factors informing decision-making, evaluation of performance, and the development of workflows and new editorial products.

Where Are the Journalists?

From the over 30 interviews conducted for the report, it clearly emerges that good analytics is not about substituting editorial judgement with the tyranny of the numbers. Quite the contrary, it’s about using the data to inform the editorial judgement — to test hypotheses instead of moving in the dark, and using the data to shed light on the subject.

Editorial analytics are powerful but not perfect. Numbers need context — the data does not speak for itself. Some things are difficult to measure and some measures have weaknesses and flaws. Different metrics serve different purposes. There is no one specific analytics approach, as much as there is not one metric that can explain everything.

Different metrics have different strengths and weaknesses and it all depends on what you want to understand.

To learn how to compare things – especially when you’re comparing different formats (like a video, a multimedia piece, a live-blog, a text-based article), different devices and different platforms — and how to define what success looks like for your organizations is challenging.

Editorial analytics are an evolving phenomenon and it is important for journalists to participate in their future development. Used well, data and analytics are a powerful resource for newsrooms to avoid flying blind in an ever-more competitive battle for people’s attention.

But if journalists don’t get involved in developing analytics and metrics that serve their editorial needs, the evolution will instead be shaped by advertising, commercial and technological priorities with little consideration of journalism.

Illustration: James Royal-Lawson