Changing approaches put high value on analytics for journalism success

Lauren Boyer
August 27, 2019

(Editor's Note: This story first appeared in The Communicator, the magazine for alumni and friends of the Penn State Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications.)

If newspapers had one dollar for every second editors spent in meetings discussing front page story placement, journalism might have avoided some of the financial hardships of the last decade.

To be fair, those meetings all made sense at the time. 

The words stamped across this sacred surface toppled presidents, signaled the breakout of war and reflected on the greatest tragedies and triumphs of their times. That coveted lettering above the fold, shouted by paperboys in the streets, signaled something momentous – to someone, at least.

The pen may be considered mightier than the sword, but it was no match for the hands of a suburban dad, who would collect that morning delivery, rip out the sports section and toss the rest – Page One and all.

The writers, meanwhile, were shielded from this ritual. The faces behind a discarded front page byline would never witness their brainchild languishing, unread, only to be jettisoned into the trash faster than they could recite the 5 Ws.

It’s a scene from a bygone era where a medium, so detached from its readership, filled the data gap with assumptions and projections void of contemporary analytic technologies. 

Today, however, journalists – including a number of Penn State graduates in the industry and faculty members in the classroom – increasingly adopt the mindsets of marketers, bridging this crippling disconnect between the historically separate church (editorial) and state (sales).

When you assume

“As a journalist, I thought everyone was like me,” said Curt Chandler, a former director of photography at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I read the A section.”

Chandler, an assistant teaching professor in Penn State's Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, said those were the days when editors “thought we knew what we were doing.”

That logic ended in the late 1990s, he said, when the newsroom reviewed the results of a new market study typically reserved for the paper’s business department. The news blew his mind. People bypassed the front page to read – of all things – the classifieds.

“This was a revelation to me,” Chandler said. “I thought I knew what I was producing and who I was producing it for, but it turns out, I wasn’t even close.”

Now, more than 20 years later, Chandler teaches students how to serve and grow audiences, leveraging website analytics and key metrics that can, for better or worse, hold a reporter accountable for writing into the void.

Curt Chandler multimedia journalism

Faculty member Curt Chandler brings an appreciation for technology and strong storytelling — something that can work on a variety of platforms — to the classroom for his students.

IMAGE: Will Yurman

Journalism is, after all, the news business, and those pursuing an editorial career must equally embrace the second word of this pseudonym, despite the symbolic barrier. At The Daily Collegian, a proving ground for generations of students, there was a literal wall between the business and news divisions in both Carnegie Building, which housed the paper for decades until 1990, and in James Building, located in downtown State College and where the paper called home until this year.

Ironically, the upcoming demolition of James Building marks an end to that divide. The Collegian newsroom will move soon, and eventually into a space in the state-of-the-art Bellisario Media Center, which is designed to facilitate collaboration between students across all communications majors and help develop the next generation of great digital storytellers, when it’s completed in 2020.

That culture of separation “is an old idea that doesn’t stand up,” said Krystle Kopacz, founder and CEO of Revmade, a company that develops audience-centric content and strategies for associations, brands and publishers. In 2016, Kopacz (’07 Journ) started the company with the idea of helping media clients diversify their revenue streams through better editorial and advertising products, including branded content. 

New business model

As a Penn State student, Kopacz favored the courtroom over the boardroom, craving the adrenaline rush of covering trials and surprise verdicts while leafing through pages of freshly-printed legal motions. But the court reporting beat – a prize in any newsroom – was seldom available to a new hire, and least of all, a recent college graduate.

“You couldn’t get that job for 20 years. I couldn’t contend with having to climb the ladder for that long,” Kopacz said.

As her peers set their sights on livable salaries at daily newspapers, Kopacz did something bold, accepting her lowest-paying job offer.

“My parents thought I was insane,” she said, reflecting on her decision to join an online healthcare news startup near Washington, D.C., as a web producer. The job involved managing a group of freelancers and editing their work for clarity and intended distribution — from search engine optimization to social media and email marketing.

“I’m so glad I did it now,” Kopacz said. “I prioritized learning and advancement early on over money.”

In 2010, Kopacz took her new expertise – now classified under the umbrella of “audience development” – to Atlantic Media, a Washington-based print and online media conglomerate. Her first task was growing a customer email database, leveraging tactics including onsite promotions and email prompts on popular articles and special reports, with the simple goal of getting to know the reader.

On reputable news websites, it’s difficult to click a few links without eventually hitting a pop-up form touting the opportunity to “learn more,” “get the top stories every morning,” or to “make your inbox more interesting.” Supplying an email address allows audience development teams to identify a reader, track their viewing habits and serve them more engaging content. Eventually – publishers hope – readers might pay for what they’re getting.

This concept behind email marketing traces its beginnings to 1978, the year Gary Thuerk, a marketing manager at Digital Equipment Corp., sent an email promoting his company’s products to 400 users via ARPANET, an early version of the internet. Like the high-waisted “mom jeans” of the same era, email, too, is back in vogue, making its mark as a more valuable tool than ever for keeping journalism viable.

Working in a business-to-business division of Atlantic Media, Kopacz helped launch Defense One, a website tailored for defense and national security professionals, as well as Route Fifty, a site focused on technology and innovation in state and local government.

Both sites serve relatively niche audiences, offering hyper-relevant information and updates readers can’t get elsewhere. At the same time, news outlets prioritizing general coverage and politics stare down a bigger challenge in determining what consumers will pay for. In doing so, they’re turning to a concept built on exclusivity and perfected by fraternal organizations, country clubs and the AARP: membership. 

Making membership matter

At National Public Radio, members donate to local stations in return for a T-shirt or a tote bag combined with the feel-good notion of supporting a shared mission.

The Guardian, a British newspaper, revamped its membership program in 2016 and began requesting donations with an emotional plea tied to the current political climate.

“At a time when factual reporting is critical, The Guardian’s editorial independence is safeguarded by our readers,” read a pop-up on the site in March 2019. “If you’re able to, please support The Guardian today.”

The Atlantic, at more than 160 years old, joined the ranks of paid membership models in 2017 with the launch of The Masthead, a premium offering appealing to its die hard readers.

“I had never seen as hardcore of a fan base as the fans of The Atlantic,” said Andrew McGill, a Penn State 2010 graduate in journalism, who is now a senior product manager for the D.C.-based publisher. “On the newsroom end, we wanted to find a way to really engage those people and give them stuff they wanted. On the business end, they saw a market for new subscriber revenue.

“On the newsroom end, we wanted to find a way to really engage those people and give them stuff they wanted. On the business end, they saw a market for new subscriber revenue.”

McGill serves as a liaison between the news company’s technology, marketing, editorial and sales departments in the hope of cementing the success of digital projects.

“It’s one of those classic hard-to-explain jobs,” he said. “I am making sure we have the trains running on time – and that we have trains at all.”

The role wasn’t necessarily on his radar when he graduated from the University and started a reporting job covering school districts for the Allentown Morning Call. Through self-taught coding skills, McGill started creating interactive graphics for the newspaper’s website, later moving to a position at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette creating web-exclusive experiences.

After joining the politics desk at The Atlantic in 2016, McGill decided to combine his editorial and technical skills into a role on its product team, which coordinates the build-out of the newsroom’s digital presence.

The Masthead, he said, evolved from surveys and discussions with panels of readers that focused on what The Atlantic could offer to become more valuable.

“From there, we very quickly got the sense that people wanted to have greater access to Atlantic writers. People wanted to have deeper dives into policy, and people were interested in talking to each other,” he said. 

Many were eager, he added, to support The Atlantic beyond a purely transactional magazine subscription.

“If they could send us more money to fund good journalism, they would do it,” he said. “They just didn’t have a way to do it.”

McGill and his team plunged right in, adopting the lean startup mentality of launching a “minimum viable product” with just enough features to collect feedback and data on user interaction.

“We wanted to get something up and running pretty quickly and put it in front of people to see how it went,” McGill said. 

The Masthead initially launched at a cost of $100 per year and included a digital subscription to the magazine, a daily weekday newsletter, access to a members-only Facebook group, event discounts and conference calls with Atlantic staffers.

“We learned, first off, that people did not like engaging on Facebook,” McGill said. “That was a deal-breaker for some of our members, so we moved to an internal forum format.”

The team also learned to prioritize quality over quantity.

“Five newsletters a week turned out to be too much,” McGill said, adding that the conference calls – popular with a small portion of members available at a specific time – pivoted to written Q&As.

After one month, The Masthead’s membership count was reportedly in the thousands, according to Digiday. 

While memberships have created a new revenue stream for some media outlets, others benefit greatly from maintaining a paywall in which their products can only be obtained by paid subscription. 

Among the leaders in that group is The New York Times, which even offers separate subscriptions for cooking or crossword puzzles. Both include digital apps and monthly fees in exchange for exclusive features. These non-news offerings comprise an increasing share of the company’s growth.

In its 2018 earnings report, the Times announced it had generated $709 million in digital revenue, shy of its 2020 goal of $800 million. Executives decided to set a new goal of more than doubling its current subscribers, hitting 10 million by 2025.

While subscriptions are nothing new, the increased reliance on loyalty as a revenue model is a far cry away from the journalism of the early 2010s – an era where clicks were king and Buzzfeed ruled the world.

“I do think that the economics of the internet being so based on volume automatically forced journalists to think about popularity versus news value,” Kopacz said. “That’s why the pendulum swinging back toward membership is a good thing.”

‘All about the math’

The traditional digital advertising model – getting as many eyeballs as possible on pages to sell ads – faces new challenges.

Digitally-native publications, once heavily dependent on Facebook, report declining traffic numbers as the social network continues to implement algorithm changes that prioritize “friends and family” in its newsfeed.

“I think journalism is being bucked by these big trends in technology and society and information,” said Lee Ahern, an associate professor of advertising and public relations in the Bellisario College. “On one hand, publishers are getting squeezed. The revenue that they can get out of their content is going down.”

Some point fingers at the so-called “Facebook-Google duopoly.” Digital research firm eMarketer predicts that by 2020 these two tech giants, combined with Amazon, will control more than 60% of digital ad spending. This would put a squeeze on publishers to compete for what’s left.

“How do publishers survive in an era where they’ve lost control of their content?” asked Ahern. “The dynamics of this industry and what’s powering it are changing. If it’s me, I’d want to know what the heck is going on.”

“The dynamics of this industry and what’s powering it are changing. If it’s me, I’d want to know what the heck is going on.”

— Lee Ahern, associate professor of advertising and public relations

Ahern leads the Bellisario College’s digital media trends and analytics minor, which helps prepare students for the changing communications landscape.

The minor, entering its third year, includes classes on advertising and digital media metrics, familiarizing students with tools they’ll use in the workplace. In the search engine marketing class, students work through the Invent Penn State initiative and are paired with actual start-ups, managing budgets and running real campaigns.

Lee Ahern digital media

Faculty member Lee Ahern, who leads the popular digital media trends and analytics minor, stresses the opportunity measurement provides.

IMAGE: Penn State

“It’s really about current economic trends and how publishers are monetizing their content in the new digital era,” Ahern said. 

Aspiring journalists who pawned their graphing calculators after their gen-ed math classes might want to retrace their steps.

“It’s all about the math. It’s media. It can be quantified,” Ahern said. “It’s not that complicated … you’re not learning algorithms or calculating statistical equations. There’s a platform that does it for you. You just have to interpret it. That’s what we teach.”

Increasing the stakes

Take this scenario: A website is visited by two different people, now classified as “unique visitors.” One hits the “back button,” thereby increasing “bounce rate,” which measures the number of people who leave after viewing just one page. Another clicks through a photo gallery, generating seven page views. Maybe this person spent 30 seconds on an article before moving on. 

An analyst enthusiastically types all these numbers into their mega-tracker – a labyrinth of color-coded, multi-tab Excel sheets, growing more and more convoluted with each column added.

“You can be overwhelmed with analytics. There’s so much out there you can track,” said Jim Iovino, deputy managing editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “What’s really important to your organization? Figuring that out is the hardest part.”

Iovino, a Penn State 1998 graduate in journalism, has spent the last year in a program called Table Stakes, an initiative funded by the Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism to help print-first metro newspapers navigate the digital transition.

Table Stakes helps editors pinpoint the data and metrics that matter. These key performance indicators – called KPIs – help a company measure how well it is achieving its business goals.

For the Post-Gazette, KPIs include digital subscriptions, page views and time spent by loyal visitors, and a user’s path that leads to becoming a digital subscriber.

“We want to make sure that people are invested in these stories, and they aren’t just flying by,” said Iovino, who leverages data to help his team do what journalists do best: ask questions. In the process, they learn to scrutinize the kinds of things newsrooms do “just because they’ve always done it.”

Several years ago, for example, the Post-Gazette started publishing a weekly gas price story at a time of skyrocketing per-gallon costs. Reporters continued the weekly update, because no one told them to stop.

“We looked at analytics, and no one was reading that story,” Iovino said. “No one actually cared about it.”

Editors eventually scrubbed the piece without any public outcry, freeing up reporters to work on other stories with more bottom-line impact.

“You want people to read your stories. You’re not just writing them for yourself,” Iovino said. “You don’t get this with newspaper. There are no analytics involved.”

Such was the case when Iovino began his career as a sports reporter at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. At that time in 1998, however, Iovino and his friends had already shifted their attention to the blossoming World Wide Web. 

They wrote about the National Hockey League in a Usenet group, one of the earliest types of discussion boards in the dawning days of the internet. Their website, lcshockey.com, saw three to four million pageviews per month at its peak, Iovino said.

“It was kind of a blog before blogs were blogs,” he said. “I knew that was where everything was headed.”

After a couple years, Iovino joined a company that managed websites for TV stations, moving eventually to NBC when the network brought its websites in-house. He started at the Post-Gazette in December 2016, helping to promote a digital-first culture at the paper.

“It’s on everybody to pitch in at this point to make sure they’re doing what they need to do to continue in this business,” said Iovino. “You can’t just rely on an advertising department.”

Not your grandpa’s advertorial

Another strategy that news organizations are using to boost revenue is the increased incorporation of branded content, a modern-day spin on the advertorial.

These articles, podcasts, native social videos and other offerings are designed to blend in with their environments and resonate with readers on an emotional level. Journalists creatively weave narratives that don’t outwardly tout a product and – short of tearing down the proverbial wall – they provide a perfect blending of the two worlds.

For example, in 2014 The New York Times ran a 1,500-word report on female incarceration for Netflix ahead of the release of “Orange is the New Black,” a show based on a book about one woman’s experience in prison. The piece, which mimicked the editorial content around it, never explicitly asked readers to watch the show.

In the documentary film industry, branded content also sees increased demand, said Chandler, who covers this type of storytelling in his class.

He cited the short documentary “Period. End of Sentence.” The film takes place in a sanitary napkin factory, making points about global acceptance of menstruation and access to hygiene products. The 25-minute video, now on Netflix, is paid for by The Pad Project, a California-based organization that raises money for machines to manufacture sanitary pads. In 2019, the film won an Academy Award.

“The skills are the same,” Chandler said. “It used to be that you couldn’t move back and forth between journalism and advertising. Once you left journalism, you didn’t come back. But now good storytellers are moving back pretty consistently.” 

When executed correctly, branded content can be a win-win, sustaining journalistic integrity while supporting an advertiser. It leads to 59% better recall than traditional ads, according to a study published in 2016 by IPG MediaLab. In the same study, consumers viewing branded content reported a 14% higher likelihood of seeking out additional information about the sponsor.

“Every brand today wants to be a media company,” added Kopacz. “They want journalists on their team. They want to interact with audiences in a more authentic way.”

One recent Penn State grad who took advantage of that trend is Adriana Lacy, a 2018 graduate in journalism, who snagged a job at The New York Times after a post-graduate internship at the newspaper.

She started on the SEO desk at the Times, mining Google Trends and internal search data for patterns to optimize coverage on anything from mid-term elections to Lady Gaga’s fashion statements at the Grammys.

“It made me start looking at journalism by the numbers,” said Lacy, now an audience engagement editor at The Los Angeles Times. “Using analytics can help your reporting and teach you a lot about your audience – what they’re interested in, what matters to them, what piques their interests.”

For some, that’s the classifieds. For others, it’s the sports section.

As they rip out – or post to Facebook, bookmark and tweet – their favorite sections, the next generation of journalists will follow their journey from click to credit card.  

Understanding how these discriminating audiences connect to their stories will ultimately determine survival of the industry.

“Try to commit yourself to a really well-rounded understanding of the media business,” said Kopacz. “It will only make you better at your job – whatever your job ends up being.”

Last Updated August 28, 2019