Idea Lab | Brian Abelson
Phillip Smith tested the speed of various news sites using tools from GTmetrix. NPR and USA Today absolutely smoke their competitors, Smith writes, while the Chicago Tribune has “one of the slowest sites on the Internet.”
NPR Director of Engineering Irakli Nadareishvili tells Smith that one of NPR’s philosophies is “Speed is a Feature. Our tech team has been investing heavy effort in getting great page load-times.” Smith made a teeth-grinding video of a Tribune page loading.
Third-party add-ons to sites can cause slowness, Smith writes, as can sites that are optimized to mobile instead of desktop users. Many data intensive news apps can be “baked out” — “served as a large collection of static files,” he writes.
New York Times OpenNews Fellow Brian Abelson is also thinking about news apps — specifically how to measure engagement with them. Traditional statistics like page views and time spent on a page aren’t adequate metrics, he writes: “A ‘successful’ news application is one that presents a reader with a story and offers them an opportunity to dig deeper.”
Given this common structure of news applications, it should be possible to create a simple metric that captures the degree to which readers use an app to move from the far view to the near view. Such a metric might help newsrooms begin to assess readers’ level of engagement; defined here as the intersection of what readers want and what newsrooms want readers to do.
Abelson uses stats to measure engagement with a Times interactive feature on red-carpet outfits, comparing time spent on the app to the number of features — color filters, shares — readers used. He proposes a more involved equation to measure engagement. Such equations will become more important, Abelson guesses, because “without a metric for news apps, our only tools for gauging success will be conjecture and anecdote — a great irony given the meticulousness with which data is cleaned and analyzed to construct these projects.”
With a standard, interpretable metric, editors and journalists can begin to judge whether their intuitions match up with their readers behavior; analysts can compare apps over time and across news organizations; developers will come to value simplicity of presentation and ease of use over technical complexity; and, perhaps most importantly, news organizations will begin designing their digital offerings with users in mind.