Mark Henricks 20 Feb 2020 // 9:06PM GMT
After more than a decade of seemingly unstoppable decline suffered by the world’s news publishers, Journalism 2.0 is starting to take shape. It’s being formed by new ways of measuring journalists’ output and effectiveness, which in turn are affecting what and how journalists report.
Among major newspapers, The Guardian, Le Monde and The Times of London have made big – and successful -- changes in the number of stories reporters are assigned and which topics are deemed newsworthy, all with the goal of acquiring more paying subscribers. Meanwhile, some business-to-business and niche publishers are following a similar path aimed more toward delivering focused quality than quantity, and subscriber value over mere volume.
What’s happening now represents a substantial evolution from counting clicks and page views. “Most publishers have woken up to the fact that clicks don’t automatically translate to loyal readers,” explains Marcus Torrey, account director at Method Communications and head of the San Francisco agency’s Media Watch program that keeps clients updated on the technology and business media landscape. (More tips from Method Communications on the new media landscape can be found here.)
“Instead, more newsrooms are focusing on how to drive subscriptions--and zeroing in the types of stories that convert a reader to a subscriber,” he says. “Still other outlets, depending on their business model, are optimizing around different focuses.” For instance, Torrey says one outlet he’d relied on for enterprise reporting last year shifted its focus from hard news to evergreen content tailored for IT buyers, in a bid to improve its SEO ranking.
Caroline Howard, director of editorial operations at Forbes, says aside from the breaking news team, the publication does not score in terms of traffic or have a minimum daily or weekly post count for its journalists.
“We prioritize news worthiness and quality over all other metrics,” she told PRovoke Media. “But we do pay close attention to other publishing metrics, such as audience engagement on our platform, our social feeds and in our newsletters. These are all indicators of reader trust and loyalty.”
I began my own journalism career with a self-administered quota that called for producing a 15-inch hard news story in the morning and a 15-inch soft news feature in the afternoon. But neither I nor my editors had any idea what impact those articles had on readers or advertisers.
I was first exposed to hard metrics in the 1980s, when an electronic publisher provided me with monthly counts of the times my articles had been accessed by subscribers. The counts were disappointingly low and it took another two decades for similar metrics to catch on in the form of page views and clicks.
Just as clicks replaced column inches in the early 21st Century as measures of journalists’ effectiveness, more sophisticated metrics are shouldering aside clicks in the century’s third decade. Dwell time, reading time, shares, subscriber conversions and other measures are revealing themselves as the new benchmarks of journalist production and prowess. (Editors’ note: Henricks has written for a wide-range of publications, including American Way, The New York Times, TheStreet.com, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Inc., and others.)
In B2B, where articles tend to be longer than the snippets prominent in much of general publishing, time spent on site is particularly relevant, observes Sam Whitmore, editor of Sam Whitmore’s Media Survey. “In B2B, they have much more comprehensive stuff and there’s a lot of cross-linking,” he notes. “They want to keep you inside the tent, and you can measure that.”
Another measure growing in importance is how many sidebars readers go to from the main article. “This is one of the things that have replaced page views,” Whitmore says. “It’s much more qualitative. It implies how much value the content is bringing. If it weren’t bringing any value that reader would be gone. If they’re on there for 10 minutes, you’re probably doing something right.”
Return rate is another metric seen as on the ascent by media analyst Thomas Baekdal. “How often do people who subscribe come back to this topic? That’s a much more valuable metric,” Baekdal says.
This focus on return rates by subscribers helps to properly devalue the low-quality clicks coming from sources like Facebook, Baekdal says. It also allows publishers to identify low-performing articles that they can remove, allowing them to redeploy resources to the types of articles that do perform.
Amplification is another metric Baekdal favors. “The concept of amplification is that people see an article and are so happy about it they do something else because of it,” he explains. This could, for instance, be sharing the article with someone else.
One counter-intuitive result of the growing number and quality of journalist metrics is that publications are finding less is more when it comes to the number of articles they publish.
“The interest in volume has diminished,” Whitmore says. “I wouldn’t say it’s dead, but the business models of the B2B publishers have migrated more toward paid content and events.”
Resources expended on generating larger numbers of loosely related articles are being increasingly redirected by B2B publishers toward more focused coverage, Whitmore says.
“The trend is to write three or four articles and have a buyers’ guide,” he says. “It’s basically going to be thematic on a single topic.” For instance, he says, a tech publication might go deeply into a narrow topic such as Internet of Things, with thematic pieces on security, governance and other IoT subtopics.
Stacey Higginbotham, editor of Stacy on IOT, takes a much broader and less quantifiable approach to calculating the impact of her coverage. “At this phase, I tend to assess my success in terms of keeping a stable and reasonably growing listener base and a steady and somewhat faster growth on the newsletter side,” Higginbotham says. “I don't worry about the success of individual stories or much at all about the web site.”
In 2016, Higginbotham launched her own site, Stacy on IOT, which produces a weekly podcast, newsletter, and daily articles. Prior to this, she held writer and editor positions at publications, including the now defunct GigaOm and Time. On her website, Higginbotham says the podcast is downloaded more than 100,000 times per month and its newsletter has more than 13K weekly subscribers.
Meanwhile Forbes, which has more than 74M+ monthly US visitors, measures the areas of interest that are most interesting to its readers. For instance, Howard says “readers have long gravitated towards our personal finance and investing content, tech coverage and all-things-billionaires. We’ve recently expanded coverage in science and space, blockchain and cryptocurrency and workplace diversity and inclusion. These have really connected to our readers interests and are growing new audiences for us.”
Limits of the New Metrics
While some mega-publications appear to be moving successfully to a subscription-based model selling fewer and better articles, that may not be the best approach for smaller niche publications. “It can work and there are places that are making strides and finding ways of making that happen,” says Nicole Blanchett Neheli, a journalism professor and journalism metrics researcher at Sheridan College. “But it’s more difficult than just deciding we’re going to be subscriber-based and everyone’s going to buy in.”
Part of the problem is that publications need many different metrics to adequately understand their audiences, Neheli says. In an industry only a few years removed from relying on advertising revenue derived from circulation figures, that can be challenging. “Because page views is such an easy metric for people to understand, there’s still great importance, placed on that metric,” Neheli says.
New Journalism Megatrends
One of the most important metrics in journalism is declining employment. The Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts a 10 percent decline in the number of reporter, correspondent and broadcast news analyst jobs from 2018 to 2028. Meanwhile, the average occupation will see 5 percent growth.
Fewer boots on the journalistic ground doesn’t ease PR professionals’ work. “At some publications, this has resulted in quick-turn stories that might not include unique reporting when compared to other outlets’ coverage of the same news,” Torrey notes. “In other cases, the productivity crunch has meant journalists just don’t have time to cover your news, no matter how relevant it is to their beat unless it rises to a certain threshold of importance and timeliness.
In B2B, Whitmore says an important dynamic will be the rising prominence of popular columnists who have their own following. These rock stars will get a pass on meeting metrics, he says. Everyone else will be judged on read times, dwell times, related clicks and the other slew of measures. “The rank and file journalists are going to be expected to create content that is service journalism, and it has to be proven,” Whitmore says.
B2B editor Higginbotham says her own judgement of whether she’s doing a job is to see whether people are subscribing and consuming the podcasts and other products she creates. “This used to be the mass media model, but that ship has sailed,” she notes. “But covering a wide swathe of a niche at all levels seems to still have legs.”
When it comes to its news reporting, however, Howard says she urges the journalists to “think creatively and find ways to differentiate our coverage, find the overlooked or invisible stories that will help and serve our readers, and focus on the new and the next in their ideas and storytelling techniques.”
Summing Up New Journalism Metrics
When it comes to revenue, Forbes was an early pioneer on revenue diversification. The majority of its revenue comes from advertising including digital display, direct-sold, programmatic sold and guaranteed, and its BrandVoice offering, as well as through live events and research and insights.
"We're also continuing to diversify our revenue through other streams such as licensing," a Forbes spokesperson said. "For example, we have over 40 local licensed editions. Other brand extensions include real estate, education as well as a book imprint business under ForbesBooks."
Even so, it's just possible that when the dust settles on Journalism 2.0, reporters will be covering much the same things they have previously, but with more insight into the needs of their audiences and, hopefully, more positive impact on publishers’ bottom lines. In that sense, the future may be to some degree a return to the past, when readers and publishers valued thoroughly reported, in-depth coverage on topical issues more than ephemeral, easily gamed clicks.
“Publishers all over the world have spent the past decade navigating one challenge after another as their industry has been reshaped by shifting consumer preferences, the toppling of traditional publishing business models, and a growing crisis of trust,” notes Torrey.
“While many have played around with narrowing in on specific metrics--clicks, page views, time spent on a given article--at the end of the day, the primary goal is to provide a value that keeps readers coming to your publication,” Torrey adds. “In that sense, journalists are still being evaluated on the reporting they turn out--and whether it’s insightful, unique or creative enough to keep people returning to read more.”
This is part one of a multi-part series on the future of business & tech media, in partnership with Method Communications. To read more from the series, click here.