J-Source talked to Chris Boutet, the deputy editor of digital operations at The Globe and Mail about how newsrooms can use analytics to guide web editorial content, how some analytics tools differ from one another and how they have influenced the emerging field of digital storytelling. 

J-Source talked to Chris Boutet, the deputy editor of digital operations at The Globe and Mail about how newsrooms can use analytics to guide web editorial content, how some analytics tools differ from one another and how they have influenced the emerging field of digital storytelling. 

 

J-Source: How active are you in tracking where your stories go on the Internet in terms of how people are talking about and interacting with them?

Chris Boutet: That’s something that, like any newsroom, we pay close attention to. We use a variety of different tools to track that, whether it’s just watching for retweets and mentions on Twitter or using something like Newsbeat to take a closer look at the real-time traffic movement on our site, it’s something that we’re watching, for sure.

J-Source: So, the Globe started using NewsBeat in the summer. What does the analytics tool bring to the table that differs from what you were using previously?

CB: For a bit of context, I just joined The Globe about three months ago. Before that I was at the National Post and we’d been using NewsBeat there for quite a while. It’s a really interesting tool. We do use a few different analytics suites to track the performance of our site but typically if you’re using Google Analytics or Omniture, you’re getting reports that are delayed. Google will give you reports usually the day after; with Omniture, it depends on the implementation but you can expect an hour, two-hour delay on data. Most of the time if you’re using those things, you’re finding out information that would have been useful to know as things were happening, but now you can only take that information and apply it to future decisions.

What NewsBeat does is gives you access to that same information, except in real-time. It’s not as in-depth as the information you get with Google or Omniture, but it’s getting better all the time. The main thing that attracts us is it will tell you how many people are on your site, right this second, what stories they’re currently reading, and what stories they’re clicking on next after they’re finished reading that.

J-Source: How do the analytics you gather influence editorial decisions for the web?

CB: It’s open to interpretation, and how newsrooms choose to use that information is going to be different. It’s certainly not something we take as gospel; it’s information that our web editors need to consider when they’re making content decisions on the site.

Something it’s really good for is for example: You put a story up in the number-one spot on your front page. You would expect that story to do well – that’s always the most clicked on section of the homepage of most news sites. But if you put that there and you see on NewsBeat that people are just not gravitating towards it, that’s kind of a red flag. You have to think about, ‘well, what’s different about this story? Why isn’t it performing as well as we expected?’ And then you can take a look at your headline – is it a strong headline that makes people want to click through? Is it a strong photo? Maybe you could put it in a different spot. Over time you may start to figure out whether or not hard news will perform better in this space compared to analysis, for example.

The point is, before we would have had to wait to find out what had happened with those stories. Now, you can see if it’s not working so well and put it somewhere else and see what happens.

It’s also really good at flagging stories that were deeper down in your site that you didn’t realize. Before NewsBeat, you’d have no idea if there was a story from a couple of days ago that suddenly spiked due to search or social media. That information would have been good to know – we could have updated that story, or provided a link to a more recent one.

An example from the Post was the mini-earthquake this summer. We noticed because of ChartBeat that the majority of people who were searching “Toronto earthquake” were clicking the 2010 earthquake story. It was odd because it was buried on the site, but it was showing up well in searches. Because we saw that information, we were able to react quickly and go into the story and point them to the 2011 story.

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J-Source: You’ve been in the digital media field for a number of years now, first with the National Post and now the Globe. How have you seen the field change in that time? Where do you see it going from here?

CB: That’s a really interesting question. I started working in digital media exclusively in 2007, so almost 5 years ago. In that time, the way that stories are told has definitely changed.

When I started on the Post site in 2007, it was like a lot of other news sites: It put up all of its newspaper content in the morning. Maybe someone would go in and shuffle the order around, but fundamentally there was no new information being created throughout the day. Previously all workflows and newsrooms were built towards a print product exclusively, and website was sort of like this complimentary product that you would try to serve as well.

As our knowledge became more sophisticated as to what people were actually looking for — and a large part of that is due to that analytics that we have access to — you started to see news sites become more reactive, and see the news cycle shrink. What used to be a 24-hour news cycle is now more like an eight-hour news cycle.

That sort of information allowed us to optimize our content and move away from the newspaper concept of storytelling and toward the digital concept of storytelling. A great example of that is to compare a story in the newspaper to a live blog using ScribbleLive. The information is given in a totally different way, though fundamentally, it’s the same information.

As for the future: Things have changed so much in the past five years, I can’t imagine they’ll stay the same.

I think the trends that are emerging now include the news becoming more real-time – and ScribbleLive is a good indication of this. I think that live blogs are an important component that will be around for a while.

I also think you’re going to start to see social media play a larger role – that may sound like a stale statement at this point, but it’s true. I think that the way that reporters and editors use social media to tell stories and the way that you collect and promote information is going to change. I’m not just talking about doing call-outs to people, that’s an important part of daily newsgathering workflow. But especially with Twitter, you’re starting to see more data analysis of the information inside of Twitter.

What the Guardian does is fascinating. They’re showing reports that pump out things like tweets per second to show the impact of the discussion around a story. You can actually see the rise and fall of the news story based on the frequency that people are talking about it. It’s a different way to tell a story.

As well, data journalism is on people’s radar more than ever before. It used to be the domain of, again, newspaper organizations like the Guardian, the New York Times, the L.A. Times, but more news organizations are recognizing the importance of data-driven journalism and that’s going to play a big role.

J-Source: What is the most successful audience engagement strategy you have seen – either from your initiatives, or that of other newsrooms?

CB: It’s interesting because readers are becoming part of the story. I think there used to be a separation there. Certainly, organizations like The Globe, who have had a dedicated community editor in Jennifer MacMillan for a couple of years now, recognize the importance of that. It’s not just generating good commentary discussion on your site – which is definitely important – but it’s also about involving your readership in crowd-sourcing a story. Whether you’re using ScribbleLive to do that, or using Twitter keywords to broadcast on your site, or going back and using Storify to tell the story of the eviction of Zuccotti Park that happened overnight. More than ever the reader is part of the story, which is interesting.