Tracking the Online Audience

Posted on March 29, 2012

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As I begin to look more at web analytics and their influence on journalism, I found one academic study to be especially insightful and intriguing — Tracking the Online Audience, written by Phil MacGregor and published in Journalism Studies in 2007.

In the paper, MacGregor examines how journalists are beginning to track their audience and the impact that this is having on their work. MacGregor interviewed 19 online journalists in a variety of print, broadcast and net-native media organizations to see how analytics are shaping news coverage.

The paper notes that “literature covering the combination of journalist, audience and technology is modest,” as this really is a new, up-and-coming trend in journalism as journalists never really had a scientific, objective way of tracking their audience. Previously, as MacGregory writes, “audience research was ‘sporadic’ and ‘ambiguous,’ and that there was “no satisfactory method of feedback which enables them (journalists) to become more aware.”

Attempting to track their audience, MacGregor points out, isn’t anything new for journalists, as website user figures largely mirror what circulation figures tried to show. However, the paper cites a 2002 Quinn and Trench study that showed journalists showed “markedly weak interest” when it came to tracking their sites and having the results affect their practices or site design.

Five years later, in 2007, MacGregor found that by speaking with online journalists at places like CNN, AOL, BBC and the Financial Times, “prolific use” of tracking data is employed at most major news organizations. These statistics are described as being “fantastically useful,” and MacGregor found a “widespread high value” placed on tracking statistics that is now “at the core of the editing process.”

There, of course, is still some hesitancy to embracing tracking data into the news reporting process. MacGregor found some mistrust with tracking data, as the data for an article “may actually reflect its position in the design of the site, rather than its readership appeal.” Additionally, the paper discusses how the emergence of analyzing tracking data when making editing decisions neutralizes any sort of “instinct” and news judgment that journalists previously exercised on a regular basis.

The paper finds that analytics are leading to more “evidence-based reaction” as opposed to “gut reactions,” and that news editing and content decisions now have an empirical and less intuitive framework.

Obviously, journalism — whether it is in print or digital — will never be comprised of just numbers; there will always be judgments and decisions made my journalists who have to consider their audience as well as their duty as news reporters. But even in these last few years, it is noteworthy how much the newsrooms have evolved and changed because developments in tracking technology now allow journalists to see in real-time how their audience is consuming content. What will newsrooms be considering when making content decisions five years from today?

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