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To measure the impact of news, let’s start from the beginning

by: Janet Coats |

In my work these last five years with community journalism startups and public media newsrooms, the conversation eventually comes around to one question:

How can we demonstrate the impact of our work – to our communities, to funders and advertisers, to ourselves?

The impact question isn’t a new one, but its urgency certainly has been heightened by the imperative to demonstrate the value of news and information as business models have changed. In the past, pure numbers – the reach of your content – was sufficient drive advertising dollars. But increasingly, the metric isn’t just raw numbers. It’s a question of who exactly did you reach and what did they do with the content once you reached them.

Reflecting the rise of non-profit journalism organizations and the pivotal role funders are playing in journalism innovation, the issue of impact has deep roots in the foundation world. Foundations are in the business of impact. They want their dollars to accomplish a demonstrable good. That’s their ROI.

So with a strong push from journalism funders, the conversation is moving beyond puzzling over how in the world we’d ever document the impact of journalism to actually experimenting with doing just that.

My inquiry into impact measurement has been driven by the public media newsrooms I work with, most particularly Colorado Public Radio.  CPR’s management team had the wisdom to recognize that tracking impact wasn’t an add-on to other efforts or projects; it was an area worthy of its own focus.

The CPR project led to a lot of research about impact and how to measure it, and I’m including a list of some of my favorite readings at the end of this post. One of the most influential pieces, not just for me but for lots of folks who are thinking about this, has been Pro Publica’s white paper on impact. Written by Dick Tofel, Pro Publica’s president, it provides a helpful case study in how this influential non-profit newsroom has approached measuring impact.

It influenced our thinking in the CPR work in a very fundamental way: It helped us realize we were trying to understand impact from the wrong end of the funnel. 

We were looking at impact from the perspective of understanding what happens when a story is aired or published, and in that we were hardly alone. Thinking about impact as an end point in the journalism process means that we make the assumption that every story we do has an impact. And let’s face it, that just isn’t true.

So now we’re building an approach that starts with what we put in the funnel. That means thinking about impact from the beginning and setting goals across four key factors:

 Content: This means approaching your reporting with the idea that you want to make your content as actionable as possible – you want people to understand what they could do with the information you are providing. 

 Targets: It’s all well and good to say that your goal as a news organization is to reach every single person in your potential audience, but the truth is that some people are far more likely to act on the news they consume. How are you making sure that you are reaching those targets? Pro Publica’s Tofel makes this point very effectively.

 Platforms: Recognize the strengths and weaknesses of the distribution and conversation platforms you are using, and set specific goals for each.

 Results: Recognize that impact has a long tail – there are small behaviors that can result from your journalism that can add up to deeper change over time. You can’t just look for the dramatic moment; you have to be tuned to the incremental developments.

I’m now working with CPR and a few other clients to test how to apply this framework to specific stories and build feedback loops that can become part of the regular newsgathering process. We’re looking at steps that build information over time, that don’t require special technology to execute, that can be integrated in routine newsroom processes and that can help make traditional metrics more meaningful.

On May 13 at 2 p.m. ET, I’ll share what we’ve learned in more detail in a free KDMC webinarRegister here.

For those interested in reading more of the really great thinking that’s going on about impact, here’s a list of some of my favorites:

Pro Publica’s white paper on impact, “Issues Around Impact.”

A good tablesetter from the Center for Investigative Reporting about how to think about impact measurement.

The reports on the Center for Investigative Reporting’s two dissections on the topic of impact measurement: Measuring impact and Defining impact.

Thoughts about how ChalkBeat is building its audience – includes a hat tip to the Texas Tribune’s approach.

A consideration of metrics and their role in impact measurement from Tony Haile, CEO of ChartBeat.

Janet Coats

Janet Coats is a partner in Coats2Coats, a consulting firm she operates with her husband, Rusty. Coats2Coats works with clients
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