Wow – a web analytics story in the New York Times! And one that probably didn't spark mass hysteria by saying that looking at web traffic data is the end of journalism as we know it.
Jeremy Peters' September 5 story, "Some Newspapers, Tracking Readers Online, Shift Coverage," nicely framed the issues about using web analytics to make decisions about coverage. At one end you have journalists who completely ignore audiences and report whatever they want. On the other there are those who "pander to the most base reader interests."
This was one of the few mainstream media stories I've seen that recognized the new role that audiences have in informing – not dictating – news decisions.
Actually what was the most interesting to me was that Raju Narisetti, the Washington Post's managing editor of online operations, said that he used "reader metrics as a tool to help him better determine how to use online resources….the data has proved highly useful in today's world of shrinking newsroom budgets."
In other words, Narisetti didn't just look at overall site traffic numbers like total visits or unique visitors and say "Oh, that's nice," or "Whatever! I've got a paper to put out." He had to cut his budget, he saw that long-form videos had little traffic compared to other types of content, and then he decided to cut "a couple of people" from that department.
Narisetti made the decision – the data didn't. He used the data. In my rather narrowly focused web analytics world that is a really, really big deal. Data just wants to be useful. Seriously. If it could talk, it would say that it doesn't want to be any part of a daily e-mail "about 120 people in The Post's newsroom" get that lays "out how the Web site performed in the closely watched metrics – 46 in all."
For data to be useful you have to ask it specific questions that you know it can answer. A metrics report won't tell you what department to cut, and by how much. However, it could tell you what types of stories get the most and least audiences, and which story types appear to have growing or declining audiences. You can also get indicators – such as the percent of long-form videos people watched to the end, rated and/or commented on – of whether you're engaging audiences.
Then the hard part – the decision – is up to you.