The newspaper business may be old and stodgy, but it's quite evident that its future depends on embracing the internet. And internet technologies.
One of those technologies: web analytics. Yesterday, The New York Times detailed how newspapers, once leery of web analytics, is increasingly taking a second look, recognizing that the real-time consumption data web analytics can provide is too valuable to ignore.
The Times explains:
Editors at The Journal, like those at other large newspapers, follow the Web traffic metrics closely. The paper’s top editors begin their morning news meetings with a rundown of data points, including the most popular search terms on WSJ.com, which articles are generating the most traffic and what posts are generating buzz on Twitter.
It's a common sense approach, but as we've seen in the newspaper industry over the past decade, common sense isn't always so common.
Obviously, analytics alone won't save newspapers fighting for dear life, or some semblance of life as they know it. In many cases, newspapers are struggling because their cost structures are incompatible with reality. In other words, their business models are broken.
But web analytics can be a valuable tool as newspapers look to compete in the 21st century. After all, most struggling newspapers won't be able to build a better business model until they look more closely at their product. What's working? What isn't? What do people want? What don't they want? What patterns can be discerned from comparing popular articles and not-so-popular articles?
In many cases, analytics can answer some of these questions. And analytics can serve as the basis for a business driven more by objective data than subjective editorial whims.
Of course, some purists will argue that analytics-driven decision making will unduly influence editorial. If editors are looking for 'likes' and 'retweets', for instance, will they compromise their standards, ignoring stories that need to be told in favor of developing stories that consumers would rather read? These concerns are valid, but perhaps overblown. As The Times notes, "Rather than corrupt news judgment by causing editors to pander to the most base reader interests, the availability of this technology so far seems to be leading to more surgical decisions about how to cover a topic so it becomes more appealing to an online audience."
In other words, analytics data is helping editors determine how, where and for how long content should be displayed. The Times cites Raju Narisetti of the Washington Post, who explained how The Post uses analytics data to determine the best way to cover a particular story. "Can we do podcasts? Can we do a photo gallery? Can we do any kind of user-generated content?" he asked rhetorically.
If we accept that newspapers can use analytics to their benefit without letting it corrupt the most sacred of editorial decisions, I would ask a question: why can't newspapers use multivariate testing in the same fashion? Why not, for instance, test two different versions of the same story, or present the same story using several different content approaches? Certainly this would pose some challenges, and risks, but I'd venture a guess that newspapers would also learn some very valuable lessons just as important as those they'll learn by making use of web analytics.