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Best practices for measuring impact

By Natalie Lung

Two factors measure the impact of journalism: the output (how much work has been done), and its significance. But Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute (API), thinks newsrooms don’t actually measure much of either.

At a 2017 CAR Conference panel, Rosenstiel spoke alongside Lindsay Green-Barber, former director of strategic research at the Center for Investigative Reporting, and ProPublica’s Director of Business Development Celeste LeCompte. The panel explained that most publications don’t keep track of the nature of their stories – for instance, whether it’s a unique story idea or just a reaction to a news event, or if it’s an explanatory piece and or an investigation.

Rosenstiel's team at API has found that watchdog and accountability stories increase engagement by almost half, while daily coverage does little to move the needle.

Rosenstiel also reminded newsrooms to evaluate public discussions and reactions generated by their stories annually, instead of waiting for someone to go to jail or a change in public policy.  

Green-Barber stressed the importance of doing network analyses: Who are the actors that reacted to your story, and how is the story used by communities to build networks? She also shared strategies for generating impact:

  • Set goals.
  • Define outcomes clearly by thinking about what kinds of communities will be activated because of your story.
  • Be creative and intentional. (The Center for Investigative Reporting invited playwrights to respond to their investigations and staged the plays in concerned communities.)

LeCompte said ProPublica’s measure of success is binary: Did something change in the real world? Did a public policy change? Did someone get fired because of the story?

“We are looking very specifically for places where our work was original enough, and was mentioned by people who are actually making the change, to say that this was attributable to us,” she said.

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