Data Journalism Tools

How Local Publishers Use Analytics to Make Editorial Decisions

In digital newsrooms across the country, editorial judgment is being replaced by web analytics. Which news events should a hyperlocal publication cover, how much coverage should a particular story get, and what sort of resources should be thrown at it? Those are all measurable questions that can be answered by looking at a publication’s web analytics report.

According to a study by the Donald J. Reynolds Journalism Institute, editors of mid-size community newspapers are more likely to base editorial decisions in part on web analytics. Ninety-percent of editors receive web analytics reports that show page views, length of visit, and traffic on their websites, and 49% make decisions about which topics to cover based on those web analytics reports.

Google Analytics and Chartbeat are two of the most popular tools for tracking publishing metrics, like time-on-site, time-on-page, and engaged-time-on-page, in real-time. Sometimes these sources can give conflicting answers about the success or failure of a particular article. That’s because Google Analytics and Chartbeat each have their own way to count visitors. But larger trends should still help guide hyperlocal newsrooms in their editorial decisions.

Just as no two publications are exactly alike, no two editors measure content performance in exactly the same way. At some local publications, analytics are used to make day-to-day decisions that optimize traffic and reach, while other publishers utilize the same data to form longer-term business strategies. There is no right way or wrong way to use web analytics to make editorial decisions. Context, priorities, goals, and expertise all go a long way in determining how digital publishers use the web analytics they collect.

Understanding the Audience

Web analytics make it possible for local publishers to get a clear view of who their audience really is. It’s easy to assume that readers engaging with hyperlocal content must live in the surrounding community, but is that really the case? Without analytics to back up their assertions, publishers are essentially flying blind.

A few questions that publishers can answer with basic analytics tools include:

  • Who is visiting the website, including location, age, gender, and income
  • How are readers interacting with content
  • What types of content are readers engaging with the most
  • Where are readers arriving from
  • Which segments of readers are most likely to share content
  • Where do readers go after they leave the publication

Gauging Reader Interest

Publications like the Wall Street Journal, and many others, rely on algorithms and web analytics reports to gauge which topics and stories readers are most interested in learning about.

Page views can help determine which topics readers are interested in, but when they’re used in a generic fashion, they can also send local publishers down the rabbit hole chasing celebrity slide shows and other content that’s irrelevant to their niche in the market.

One solution that many hyperlocal publishers have settled on is to keep a closer eye on engagement metrics, like time-on-page, which offer more insight into how the audience is receiving a particular piece of content.

Improving Headlines

In addition to influencing the coverage that certain topics receive, web analytics can be used to improve the quality of headlines. Publishers can test different headlines to see which keywords attract the most attention or generate the greatest click-through rates.
Intrinsic factors that made print headlines meaningful are lost in the digital world. A successful headline for an online publication is one that can stand on its own in a social media post and also inspire people to click on a link. “Descriptive and direct” is the definition of a great headline most often used in digital newsrooms today.

Keyword selection is incredibly important, as well. Headlines filled with puns, but missing keywords that describe what the article is actually about, are duds in an online world. Editors can improve an article’s traffic by using descriptive keywords and short, punchy headlines.

Of course, data rarely tells the complete story. In an ideal world, editors would be combining qualitative judgment with their own journalism expertise to make important decisions about what topics their reporters will cover.

If you’d like more guidance on how to use web analytics to improve your own editorial workflow and cultivate a more engaged readership, let’s connect.