March 21, 2014

Editor’s note: On Monday, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds argued for new ways to measure digital audiences that would replace the widely used unique visitors and page views. In this post, News Corp’s Raju Narisetti takes a contrary view. Portions of this post appeared previously in a Newspaper Association of America blog.

I remain a big fan of page views per visit (a sign of engagement) and repeat visits (a sign of loyalty) as variations on relatively conventional — and important — metrics that are still critical to both our journalism and the business model that supports our journalism.

Only those who don’t have a successful growing digital advertising revenue stream — along with vendors, media critics and pundits that don’t need to fund newsroom P&Ls — seem to think of page views (the audience articulation of ad impressions) as “vanity” or outmoded metrics.

While it is critical that our industry evolves and adapts, and new ideas around better metrics are a key part of that journey, wishful thinking on new fangled metrics don’t necessarily mean we can simply abandon what works — and I dare say, works OK.

I am also keen on metrics that help drive conversions — and these will vary by newsroom and business model — of “guests” (your one-and-done type visitors) to “readers” (often registered but not paying) to “subscribers” (paying readers) to “members” (those who avail themselves of other non-content led benefits of subscribing.)

These metrics remain a work-in-progress in various News Corp newsrooms globally but, eventually, will be the primary focus of how we need to manage our newsrooms and news publishing companies when it comes to audience data. I am wary of “time spent” metrics simply because of the complexity of measuring that and the resulting assumptions and inaccuracies that usually creep in.

The real challenge still remains that print-centric newsrooms have long derided audience engagement data — unique visitors, page views — as pandering and click-bait. And clearly newsrooms with a brand expectation and reputation to protect have to be wary of negative tipping points on metrics, unlike many newer brands that are scaling audiences quickly, often as part of a “financial exit” strategy.

But that mainstream derision has also become an easy crutch to continue to live in an outdated, but safe print cocoon of believing every story, especially if it makes the front page, is read by most readers, independent of evidence, and applying that same thinking in many ways to Web and apps, especially regarding story choices and newsroom curation of marquee pages/sections.

Editors continue to have a key gatekeeper role to play even in this era of promiscuous audiences, even when they need to become gate-openers. Part of that is exercising good judgment. And if we didn’t do that, stories on Syria, the U.S. fiscal cliff and even the NSA wouldn’t continue to get the play they currently get on our home pages, especially if such decisions were purely based on following cues from reader-engagement metrics.

But the news business is in an existential crisis fueled by dramatic shifts in how our audiences engage with our content. To continue to ignore the reality of being able to see often in real-time and measure and course-correct based on digital engagement data and metrics, is a self-inflicted wound that will see our audiences migrate in big numbers to those upstarts that seem to do this as part of their DNA.

In a slow-burn crisis like the ones many newsrooms are facing (or ignoring), I would rather that mainstream newsrooms risk doing too much with metrics — because that is easy to correct — than do too little, under false ideological or ossified church-and-state arguments. These conveniently cover up the disdain many editors continue to have for actual reader feedback, downplaying the decision-making value of reader metrics.

There has been growing concern expressed, somewhat naively and often by those not inside newsrooms, that mainstream news brands will fall prey to journalism by the numbers if they, heaven forbid, start their morning meetings by looking at audience metrics. In most mainstream newsrooms that I am familiar with, I actually wouldn’t worry too much about falling victim to such Chicken Little fears of data-driven decision-making or an extreme obedience to metrics and resulting tactics, such as A/B testing 15 headlines or playing Russian roulette with story choices on home pages based on click-bait models. That is because of a whole slew of rather benign, practical reasons that govern the day-to-day behaviors of mainstream newsrooms, including:

• The sheer volume of original journalism a Wall Street Journal or a New York Times newsroom produces every day, compared to an Upworthy or some such curator/aggregator with a penchant for rewriting headlines;
• The (sad) prevalence of not-too-nimble publishing systems for Web output, which actually make it difficult for many mainstream newsrooms to react too quickly to reader data:
• The reluctance of product and advertising teams at many mainstream media companies to challenge newsroom arguments and decisions, even on obvious audience engagement issues and especially in terms of linking content choices to converting readers to subscribers;
• The notable absence of an A/B testing culture or easy-to-use tools in most mainstream newsrooms, even if they exist a bit on the product or tech side;
• The lip-service still paid to linking performance of journalists, including key editors, to outcomes, especially digital outcomes
and, thankfully, the existence of many, many editors in mainstream newsrooms who actually do have a good journalistic and ethical sense of responsibility with regard to story choices and play decisions.

Many mainstream newsroom editors are rather well compensated to bring their expertise and experience to story and display choices. In the traditional newspaper world, they were all we had to go by. In the digital world, smarter newsrooms — both editors and publishers — are marrying that core expertise and experience with actual data, moving a little further away from just a “tummy compass” (aka gut feel) approach, to a genuine mix-and-match of data and judgment.

Big (and little) data, and our emphasis on it, should always be as a complementary, gut-check verification asset, and an opportunity to form deeper relationships with our readers, not a wholesale replacement for sound journalistic practices.

Raju Narisetti is senior vice president, strategy, for News Corp. A summer intern at The Wall Street Journal in 1991, he spent 15 years there as deputy managing editor of The Journal, managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Digital Network, and editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. In-between, he was managing editor of the Washington Post Co. He is the founding editor of Mint, India’s second-largest business newspaper. A trustee of the International Institute of Education, which administers the Fulbright fellowships, he is also on the board of ICFJ, the International Center for Journalists. He tweets, often way too early in the morning. Follow him @raju.

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Raju Narisetti is senior vice president, strategy, for News Corp. A summer intern at The Wall Street Journal in 1991, he spent 15 years there…
Raju Narisetti

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