Embrace your inner nerd to improve your journalism

Oct 26, 2021 in Data Journalism

There is no shortage of digital tools and techniques that you can use to enhance your reporting ــــــ from identifying what stories to tell, and collecting and analyzing data, to more effectively sharing your reporting with a target audience. 

There’s a nerd inside us all we can embrace to accomplish these goals. Here’s how. 

Identify your audience

Identifying your audience is a critical first step when sitting down to write. Understanding for whom you’re writing helps pinpoint topics of interest for your readers, and the most effective way to package your reporting. Do your readers enjoy analyzing business charts, for example? Do they prefer reading longform narratives? Or consuming their news via video?

Digging into the analytics behind your media outlet’s social media accounts will offer you valuable insights about your audience. You can find reader demographics and identify the age groups following different types of posts, as well as where your followers are located. 

Facebook offers these metrics, but Twitter doesn’t. Followerwonk is a tool that provides analytics about your Twitter accounts, and those of your competitors, too (it doesn’t require you to be the owner of the queried account). It provides you with information about the geographical distribution and the age group of followers.

I prefer using Buffer, as it provides analytics about your audience on social media accounts you connect to the service. The following figure shows Buffer providing data about the audience of one of the pages I manage.



One size doesn’t fit all, as they say. News about COVID-19, for instance, might interest a wide audience, but there is variation within this. Some readers may prefer looking into comprehensive research and cumulative statistics, while others may just look at infection numbers or trends. Identifying your audience can help you produce what they look for in the content, in both form and substance.

[Read more:  How to apply SEO in the newsroom routine]

Go deep with analytics

Historically, journalists have driven interest in issues and stories among the public. Today, however, a large number of outlets and readers are content creators as much as they’re content consumers. Journalists should track these current trends as a way to measure audience interests.

CrowdTangle is a tool that helps track popular topics on social media, according to categories like the publication and the type of content. It provides data about the scale of interaction, including comments and shares. The following figure, for example, shows the popular topics about COVID-19 in Egypt.



When I was an editor at Yahoo Maktoob, I would spend my mornings monitoring and analyzing a number of key indicators to help me determine the successful story to post on the website’s frontpage for millions of visitors to see. I then tracked the engagement that ensued. When we didn’t hit our targets, we’d update the lead story. 

Some of the indicators we monitored and analyzed were:

  • Most popular tags on Twitter in countries of interest
  • Most popular videos on YouTube in countries of interest
  • Most-read topics on international news websites like BBC, Sky News and Alhurra
  • Most-browsed daily topics on our website
  • Most interactive topics on our accounts on social media platforms
  • Website pages that readers spent longest on
  • Least-browsed daily topics on our website
  • Least interactive topics on our social media accounts
  • Pages left by the audience after a few moments of browsing

You can regularly measure, experiment, analyze, follow and connect these indicators to one another through Google Analytics. This can help you understand what topics will appeal to the largest audience, and which ones may no longer generate traction. Try A/B testing headlines on stories to see which grabs readers’ interest most.

[Read more: How to use data to understand readers' needs]

Search for keywords

Google Trends is a tool that helps explore popular topics by country or even sections of a city. Before your daily news meeting, you can check what’s popular in your area, or in places serving a large subsection of your audience.

If you’re interested in a certain issue or a cause, you should activate Google Alerts or subscribe to Talkwalker. These tools enable you to create daily or weekly keyword alerts, which you can elect to receive via email. Talkwalker also provides data about what has been published about the keyword, and whether it’s been referenced in other news articles or on social media.

Keywords also help identify topics of interest to the audience. If you’re using Google Chrome, you can add extensions like Keyword Everywhere, which shows a trendline of how popular a word is when you Google it. It also shows other related words searched by people. If you search “Corona” for instance, related searches appear, such as “kinds of vaccine,” “Corona in India” and “black fungus.” The related searches may suggest other topics for your coverage.

My favorite tool for knowing the keywords associated with the audience’s interests is Keyword Tool, which provides results based on the publisher’s platform on social media and on Google. The following figure shows the questions most searched on Google, in Arabic, about COVID-19.



Understanding the keywords and the scale of their reach not only helps inform what topics we choose to write about — it also helps us make content findable by search engines. When we use keywords in the same form as the audience uses in their search, it makes our reporting more easily discoverable, and shareable. Keywords are an important shortcut for search engine optimization, or SEO.

You don’t have to be a programmer or data analyst to play with these tools and enhance your coverage —they do most of the analysis for you. You just have to discover your inner nerd.

Photo by Per Lööv on Unsplash