‘Working With Metrics Is All About Trial and Error’; How to Get Everyone on Board

Analyzing metrics does not come easily to a lot of journalists, many of whom grew up as content nutritionists of sorts, deciding what’s best for their audience. But times change. As editorial leaders add a spoonful of sugar to their specific medicine of metrics, a Reuters report last year provided a good framework for “overcoming metrics anxiety.”

Late last year, in one of our Lessons From a Leader series, Lucy Swedberg, executive editor and senior editorial director at Harvard Business Publishing, was asked about metrics.

“One of the best practices that we’ve embedded is an analytics meeting for our editors, so that they can really see their work and how it ends up performing out in the world,” Swedberg said. “You start to hear them thinking and observing, ‘Oh, this thing did really well—let’s do more of those.’ I love when I hear they’re getting insights from the data. Because, at the end of the day, that’s what will keep us going and [allow us to] make an impact.”

At Industry Dive, the audience and marketing team creates actionable dashboards for the editorial team. “This not only helps us measure more of the things that matter to our audience, but it makes it really easy for our editorial team to get actionable insights that they can make decisions on and can really inform what they’re doing,” Davide Savenije, editor in chief, told us last year.

“Journalists are not analysts,” wrote Elisabeth Gamperl, managing editor, digital storytelling unit, Süddeutsche Zeitung in Munich, last year in a Reuters Institute report titled Overcoming Metrics Anxiety: New Guidelines for Content Data in Newsrooms. “Most of them became journalists because they care about words and stories… It is important to provide the newsroom with data it really gets value from.”

Ultimately, wrote Gamperl, analysts should be seen as vital members of the newsroom. Here are more key takeaways from that report.

Inform the newsroom but don’t overwhelm them. If you provide too much, it has a counterintuitive effect of making people less engaged with it because people don’t know where to focus.

Don’t expect your journalists to DIY with the dashboard and be done. One analytics team developed a list of questions they work through before submitting data to the newsroom. And avoid posting individual rankings or standings. Instead, promote information that is helpful to your content team like, “Did you know that most people read us between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m.?

Don’t look at metrics as static and immovable. It should be an ongoing process to work with—a positive feedback loop. The question should not be: What is the number? But rather: What can you do in response to this number?

Further examine poor-performing content. Repackage and republish in another context and see how it works. “If a story should work and it doesn’t, we try to look at the presentation, change the headline, change the picture and publish it again at another time,” one editor said.

Look at opens vs. “dwell times.” If an article has a high open rate but a low dwell time, then it might be a “one-fact” story, or the headline “missold” it. But if opens are low and engagement high, then maybe people aren’t finding it. Try plugging it on social media or giving it a better position on your website.

Normalize talking about failures. “Working with metrics is all about trial and error, adjustment and retrial,” Gamperl wrote. “Every failure is a step closer to success.” Said one editor: “We have as many open conversations about when things haven’t worked as possible without everyone getting really upset.”

Go for quality over quantity. With a shift from monetized page views to subscriptions in the industry, many publishers are lowering their daily article counts and aiming for more quality. “We were producing too many things that fell below the bar of being promoted,” said one editor.

Focus on measures that support your editorial and revenue model goals. “If your goal is audience growth, you must start measuring new users. If your objective is to generate more subscriptions, perhaps you should consider measuring conversion journeys in more detail, from anonymous to registered readers,” wrote Gamperl.

When comparing articles, make sure they’re getting the same play. To solve this problem, The Times of London “developed a score that compares articles only with equivalent articles promoted in the same spot.” They have their own analytics tool to evaluate this.


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