ARE JOURNALISTS KEEPING PACE WITH THE TECH REVOLUTION?

GFMD Webinar on Digital Audience Analytics

In the recent webinar hosted by GFMD, panellists have shared their insights on how audience data can be used for project design, informing project implementation, monitoring, and evaluation, and how it can be used by local news media. This exercise aimed to showcase current developments in the field of digital audience analytics.

The structures that have traditionally supported journalism are changing in a fundamental manner. “While twenty years ago, we said, you know what, let us make it free,” points out Nick Tjaardstra, Director, Global Advisory WAN-IFRA, “now we are saying – how will you measure the number of people that will pay for your content?” In digital journalism, especially when it comes to measuring your audience, page views tend to dominate the landscape. They also form a big part of the analytical conversations in newsrooms and are often used as currency in the advertising industry. But to compare page views on an article-by-article basis and use it to push advertising is editorially flawed, argued Dejan Nikolic, Co-Founder & CEO of Content Insights. “When your browser is loading an html page from your website,” he explained, “it starts from top to bottom and it (the code) loads line by line. And when it hits the JavaScript code from the analytics company, the company says, ‘okay, one page view going up.’ And that’s all.” This technical evaluation has now become the benchmark to determine the success of most things in a newsroom from the article to the brand and even to determine whether a journalist is doing their job well. “Which is ridiculous,” Dejan added, “because that is a technical browser metric that has merit but not in the editorial.”

In a recently released report, the International Center for Journalists conducted a survey of newsrooms around the world, in which it was found that “Page views is the metric that gets the most attention from newsrooms (73%). Much less attention is given to engagement metrics: social shares (46%), conversion rate (18%), and scroll depth (16%).” Fatima Bahja, Manager of New Initiatives at the International Center for Journalists confirmed what this means: “Our main finding was that unfortunately, despite many strides, journalists are unfortunately not fully unlocking the potential of the digital era.” According to the findings most newsrooms around the world are using only basic analytics data, despite having access to a wide range of analytics metrics. “And when you look at other metrics such as social shares, engaged time and scroll depths, these metrics, rather than page view numbers, help us understand how audiences are interacting with content and engaging with it,” said Fatima, “What this really indicates to us is that the overall trend still is that newsrooms are more concerned about getting clicks, than they are about how audiences are interacting with their content.” The study also reveals that less than half of newsrooms (45%) consult analytics daily. Newsrooms primarily use analytics data to drive traffic to their websites. More specifically, after driving traffic to their websites, the number one reason why newsrooms use analytics is to engage audience members. Fatima said: “And this is where we found that to be quite interesting because it kind of doesn’t fit with our earlier findings which leads us to assume that either newsroom managers or journalists don’t know or are simply using the incorrect metrics.”

Another finding from the survey is that there is a kind of levelling field in the sense that regions across the world seem to be embracing the digital era. When the ICFJ surveyed newsrooms on what they thought was a major challenge for them in the digital era, more than half the newsrooms in Latin America, in MENA, the Sub Saharan Africa and East and Southeast Asia reported that attracting loyal audiences was a major concern. Those were the same regions also reported that they had trouble identifying new revenue streams. So, where do the alternatives lie? As Fatima said: “Simply put, page views make sense in a world where advertising can continue to serve as a sustainable source of revenue. But advertising is simply not a recipe for sustainability anymore. A better recipe would really require us to experiment with new business models and look for new revenue streams.” She pointed out that they are starting to see that newsrooms and organisations are experimenting with new business models. There is also a remarkable trend in these organisations diversifying their revenue streams – they are turning away from advertising to other revenue streams such as subscriptions, other forms of contributions and audience donations. With a change in revenue streams comes a change in currency. What these alternative revenue streams require is a loyal audience base rather than a lot of clicks.

This is also the point at which we can begin to observe a correlation between loyalty and sustainability. Newsrooms are beginning to see a lot of value in building a rapport with audience, in figuring out ways in which we can better engage audiences, so as to ensure audience loyalty which in turn ensures newsroom sustainability. As for other engagement metrics, Dejan noted that apart from engaged time which was a metric invented by Upworthy, and then applied by Chartbeat, there weren’t very many that could be applied. Scroll depth is considered an engagement metric because you have to do something with your mouse. But as Dejan pointed out, It doesn’t show you if they are engaged with the content, it shows you if they are engaged with the browser, the mouse or with the page. Social sharing which was once a reliable metric, is now fraught with issues. Dejan illustrated how cloudy social metrics actually are by explaining how Facebook pull everything into one bucket and calls it the shares bucket. All forms of audience engagement, their likes, emoji’s, comments, and shares are all piled in one place and the publisher can no longer ascertain whether something has actually been shared or not. In order to make pivotal editorial decisions, Dejan suggested that first, there needs to be a certain form of clarity in the metrics. He said: “This is also where we need to ask yourself the question, ‘is driving traffic to website a marketing function or is it an editorial function?”

A more pressing question however, remained. moderator Nick Tjaardstra framed it in the following way: ‘Everybody is measuring page views. If that is what the advertisers or the agencies are looking out for on how they are measuring you out against your competitor, how they are paying? How can you change the way advertisers think about this?’ With advertising, it was recognized that it would be near impossible to get the industry to accept a different form of currency. Only a few organisations like Chartbeat and Time Inc. have tried it with any form of success. Dejan then brought the conversation back to models of advertising. He said: “What I’m saying that page views can stay as currency for advertising. Advertising as it is now is a broken model, but what do we have now. About 70% of it goes to Facebook and Google anyway so all the other media in the world is competing for 30%, and this shows that you need other business models. “You don’t need another currency for agencies, you need new business models and advertisers need to understand that the display advertising they are used to, is no longer effective. But there are other more effective ways to reach the audience and that is where you have the chance to get out into a new market.” “You just need to understand what your strategy is what you want to do, because if you want to change metrics and how you use metrics, it could be a very ambitious undertaking to switch from page views to something else. Sometimes it is a cultural change, sometimes it is an organisational change because you change your objectives and you need to switch from building traffic to building audience.”