offers a new tool to hunt for topics readers want

March 13, 2019
Category: Business & Work

Editors and reporters have long relied on analytics (among many other uses) as a way to identify the best-read digital stories. now has an intriguing wrinkle: a tool to identify reader demand for stories that are in scarce supply. The feature is an enhancement to Currents, an industry-wide content analysis tool introduced last fall, that ideally could prompt more variety in story selection rather than belaboring proven topics.

CEO Sachin Kamdar and senior data analyst Kelsey Arendt explained in a phone interview that the tool looks at’s 3,000 client sites. Demand is measured by views, and the supply of coverage by the number of articles that treat a given topic.

The basic measure is of top-performing stories worldwide, but “content demand” can be broken down by locality or a site’s vertical focus. (Some may want to assess Kanye West as a topic; others just won’t care).

As an example, Arendt offered the oh-so-popular topic of Donald Trump. Naturally, pieces on his politics and strategy are super abundant. So “a publisher needs to ask, do they have something to say” she said, that is not available other places?

Other angles may be less obvious but draw a lot of attention when they do surface; for instance, Trump and health — his weight, his steak-and-more-steak diet, his medical exams, whether he gets much exercise playing golf with a cart.

For a local hypothetical, Arendt offered her hometown of Ottumwa, Iowa. Immigration has been a big development there; readers might want to know more about where immigrants end up than the typical border-crossing stories. And the insight could prompt both local coverage and selection among national articles on the wires.

Showing off just a little, Kamdar punched a few buttons and told me that he noticed that in Poynter’s home turf — Tampa-St. Petersburg — the Yankees are currently a hot topic of interest, “and I have no idea why.” (The team trains in Tampa, and George Steinbrenner lived here).

Kamdar sees the tool as a partial antidote to a conservative and self-reinforcing set of story choices. Advertisers do their part looking for adjacency to topics they are sure will perform well. But broader story selection could bring in added traffic and “broaden authority and a unique selling proposition,” Arendt said.

I am no longer in the business of story assignment or planning coverage, but I have been intrigued by the findings the big metric companies can derive from their massive collection of data.

I have written for four years now about rival Chartbeat’s annual ranking of top stories among their clients by total engaged minutes. Some years a big topic like the elections or ISIS take home the honor; others, a story with a strong personal and emotional elements like Anthony Bourdain’s obituary or a personal history of one family’s longtime servant.

A basic version of the content demand tool is free for now; a premium upgrade, allowing for more complex queries and a higher volume of data runs, does carry a price.

Though typically text-focused, the demand tool can also be adapted to video or mixed media.

My colleague Ren LaForme picked the basic version of Currents as one of the Top Ten Tools for Journalism of 2018 in a December article. Among the features is a tracker of social media traffic and referrals.

“We were able to see the referral decline from Facebook a year before the pullback (was announced),” Kamdar said.

I would not expect content demand to supplant the metrics, offered by the American Press Institute among others, to help local media outlet identify “passion topics” for that particular place and tune story selection accordingly

But the feature could be a useful addition, as Arendt said, as “a new tool to listen to the audience … a signal of what’s impactful.”