As part of the News Impact Project, we’re happy to share a few select blogs from our friends at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project and guest blogger Anjanette Delgado, senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press.
Whether you’re making your case to subscribers or donors or just wanting to know what’s working, now is a good time to start tracking the impact of your journalism. Knowing your page views and monthly uniques is important, but so is being able to show that your investigative work inspired a change in the law or got the shady pol ousted. I’m seeing more and more newsrooms getting into subscription sales and making the case that #journalismmatters and requires investment. They’re not wrong, but I’ll argue it’s stronger communities that really matter and journalism is one way — albeit a necessary way — of getting us there. So let’s track that change and see if we can understand more about what the triggers are. Here are a few tips for getting started:
1. Agree on what types of impact matter to your organization. Real change, social likes? Think of the audience here. What will matter to donors, subscribers, your community? We define impact as “real-world change that happens as a result of our journalism,” and here’s what we track:
- At The Hechinger Report, a donor- and member-funded organization covering education, they also track things such as benefits to sources; requests for staff expertise, including data; full reprints of their work and whenever new professional development strategies are initiated in schools. Their 28-item list came about after an hours-long staff brainstorming session, said Lillian Mongeau, the site’s membership manager. “Conversations with the staff helped set the stage and get everyone invested on the ground floor,” she said.
- Blair Hickman, who led the building of an impact tracker while she was at The Marshall Project and now works as the director of audience at Vox, advises defining impact with leadership first: “A good way to jumpstart this conversation in a newsroom that’s been publishing for awhile is to A) ensure everyone is on the same page about the newsroom mission, B) gather examples of what people within the newsroom would classify as impact (this often varies!) to review as a group and C) review existing definitions from CIR and NewsLynx for inspiration.”
- Jessie Shi, the audience engagement fellow at Barron’s and a graduate student in New York University’s Studio 20 program, tipped me to this list (page 78) of what Institute for Nonprofit News members track, which includes referral links and helps set the news agenda for others.
2. Set your bar and keep it there. Don’t fill up your list or database with small things that don’t matter. We don’t get caught up in Twitter retweets but do record when our journalism starts a valuable conversation on social media. Mongeau calls this “major social attention” and values when a key figure shares their work.
3. Talk to your staff about what you’re doing and why. Get buy in from key stakeholders. The investigative team is obvious, but others will see the benefit, too. Remember your editorial board, if you have one, because those folks actually advocate for change and need to know/show whether they’re effective. If Mongeau had just shared a finished list with staff and said “do this,” it wouldn’t have worked, she said. Without buy-in it becomes “just one more thing” we all have to do. Our selling point was that impact offers a balance to pure page view tracking and a more complete assessment of the i-team. If this work doesn’t make our communities better, what are we really doing here? I hear this at farewell parties for colleagues: Mission is what keeps journalists going despite worries about the industry’s future.
4. Get started however you can. The tool doesn’t matter as much as seeing progress, but a good tool makes it easier. We started with a Google Form that fed into a spreadsheet before deciding to invest in software dev; so did The Hechinger Report before switching to CIR’s open-source tracker. (We both knew forms wouldn’t work long-term because spreadsheets get unwieldy quickly, but they helped us refine our list of impacts to track.) Pedro Burgos’ Impacto project uses web scrapers to streamline the work (though that requires evidence of impact to be online, where it can be scraped).
5. Don’t let software stall your progress. Simple may be better for your developer, who probably has a bunch of other projects to get to, and it definitely is for the journalists using it.
6. Share your results with your readers, subscribers, members. Let them know why this matters, how they’ve helped (this is key) and how they can help going forward. How they can help might mean giving money, but it also could mean sharing story tips or calling their government representative.
7. Remember to share this information with marketing, sales and memberships, too. They’re trying to make an effective case for investing in the type of work that makes people’s lives better. At The Hechinger Report, Mongeau said she’s found impact effectively motivates both donors and members to give. Regardless of our business models, we all could use a bit more of that motivation.
Here’s some stories from the trenches and their impact:
- A story about three women opening a community center for foster care families in Arizona inspired a reader to donate $1 million to cover the entire mortgage. The Arizona Republic’s coverage of child welfare, along with research, is supported by a three-year grant from the Arizona Community Foundation.
- David McKay Wilson’s four-month investigation into the Irvington (N.Y.) schools led to the director of technology’s resignation on Jan. 25. McKay Wilson, who found him billing the district for travel related to his second job, covers taxes for lohud.com and The Journal News.
- After the Detroit Free Press detailed allegations that Centria Healthcare, Michigan’s largest autism therapy provider, had been running a Medicaid fraud scheme and that the Attorney General’s Office had opened its own investigation, state officials rescinded an $8 million grant for Centria.
If you have an impact story to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story was originally published by the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project on February 11, 2019, and is republished here with permission.
Members of the News Media Alliance staff have contributed to this post.