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Analytics for reporters: Ignorance is not bliss

By Meldon Jones

A few months ago, "SEO" was like a dirty word to Education Week reporter Benjamin Herold.

His reporting philosophy – "Build it and they will come" – placed the onus on readers to find and engage with content on his blog. Herold routinely ignored emails lauding anything related to the importance of web analytics, like making headlines SEO-friendly.

But it was his natural skepticism that finally piqued his interest. Herold caught himself being dismissive of something without first knowing all the facts – a realization that rubbed his journalistic instincts the wrong way.

A presenter at the panel "Analytics to find and grow your audience, from the reporter’s perspective," Herold acknowledged that reporters lacked control over variables, like when headlines and images are paired with stories, or what metadata gets attached. But the larger issue was that he lacked an adequate way to truly measure the impact of his work.

“Success felt like getting a big story on the front,” Herold said.

But once Rachael Delgado, Education Week’s director of knowledge services, helped him see that incorporating analytics into his workflow could yield greater control over efforts to capture success, Herold was sold.  The assumption that readers read a story simply because it’s published quickly became overshadowed by the need to find evidence. 

“The burden shouldn’t be on the readers to find our work,” Herold said. “[The reporter] should understand the [readers’] habits, and that’s only possible with analytics.”

The gap that exists between reporters on the ground and higher-level content strategy staff is a common one across newsrooms. The challenges facing shifts toward a data-driven culture are many, but Delgado grouped them into three main categories. The first challenge concerns access. Sometimes reporters lack knowledge about the data “gatekeepers” in their organization.

The second challenge is one of data limitations. For example, reporters might not have a way to measure something like “time on page” metrics or other types of variables, and overall, chunks of data just aren’t being collected.

The third challenge can be the organizational culture itself, where reluctance to move toward data-driven decisions abound. In the last scenario, it is especially critical that reporters and teams experimenting with analytics document their successes. Skeptics often need to see demonstrated value before coming on board.

The bottom line is that "all [reporters] want people to read their stories,” Herold said.

And with increased focus on measurement, that’s exactly what happened on Education Week’s blog. They’ve seen tremendous gains on key traffic-related metrics: a 102 percent increase in page views, an uptick in Twitter visits by 80 percent, an increase in mobile views by 113 percent and a 115 percent increase in site registrations.  

Their blog still struggles to maintain engagement, however. The data indicates that their “bounce” rate also increased.  But even the posts that Herold dubs “dog posts”- those rote, mediocre stories highlighting a government report or something similar - had more traffic.

Herold and Delgado said they established key performance indicators by identifying big ideas like “findability” and reach and found metrics to act as reasonable proxies. Content strategy-wise, they engaged in six main activities:

  • Publish more consistently;
  • Make smarter decisions about what to cover;
  • Offer more incremental coverage and clustered content on bigger stories;
  • Use more photos and images;
  • Take a smart approach to “evergreen” content;
  • And add in some fun through occasional, lighthearted content.

Herold said that most of the time, only simple changes need to be made. These include things like frontloading keywords in the URLs and headlines, hyperlinking key phrases, revamping blog categories and tags, and highlighting related stories.

“This process takes only four or five minutes [extra]," Herold said. “This stuff is not rocket science. It’s being systematic at the reporting level and saying, ‘This is my responsibility to do.’”


Mel Jones is a digital journalist, nonfiction writer, and former fundraiser. She holds a bachelor's degree from Bryn Mawr College and will receive her master's degree in Journalism and Public Affairs from American University this summer with a specialization in investigative reporting. Mel has contributed to investigations for both the Washington Post and the Investigative Reporting Workshop. She enjoys startup events, programming, and green tea ice cream.

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