How to introduce impact tracking to your newsroom

by Pedro Burgos
Oct 30, 2018 in Specialized Topics
Tracking impact

Updated at 5:04 p.m. on April 10, 2018

At a time when news is freely available online, media organizations need new ways to convince readers to pay for access.

The Guardian, for example, assures: “We invest your money back into funding our open journalism and promoting freedom of speech, making quality news coverage accessible for everyone.” The Washington Post goes further, saying it needs your dollars because “democracy will die in darkness” if there are no watchdogs.

When you donate to an NGO, you are interested in their results, and you trust their intentions and ability to make the world a better place. Results, for journalism, is often called impact. Impact can take the form of a corrupt official ousted after a journalist’s investigation, or it can be as simple as a reader thanking a news organization in the comments for helping them become better informed.

But news organizations — especially for-profit ones — are not as good at collecting or publicizing their impact as, say, Greenpeace or Doctors Without Borders. Part of it, from my research, comes from a fear of mistaking good journalistic results for activism. And part of it is because publishers have never really needed it until now. For decades, they could sell premium access to exclusive information. The idea that the media performed a civic duty was a given.

Getting better at tracking and communicating impact is important to journalism’s bottom line. That’s our hypothesis at Impacto.jor, an initiative to measure and communicate impact in journalism backed by Google News Initiative in Brazil. We think that if newsrooms get better at collecting their impact, and communicating it to their audiences, it will strengthen trust in media and make a better case for why people should support journalism.

Impacto has been running in beta for almost a year. Our approach is to develop a series of bots that scrape the web, from government websites to social media, to create a database of "insights" — potential impacts. Reporters and editors can then use those insights to report impact after stories are published. You can read more about the experience of one of our partners, Gazeta do Povo, here.

This week, we publicly launched Impacto in Portuguese and English. As an ICFJ Knight Fellow, I am now working to expand Impacto to newsrooms in Brazil, Latin America, the United States and Europe. 

Our tool is designed to streamline an organization’s impact tracking, and we'll open-source the code through our GitHub in the future. But before you even consider a new tool, you need to step back and clearly define the role and process for impact reports at your organization. 

1.  What does your organization mean by impact?

At Impacto, we define impact as broadly as possible for two reasons: each organization has a different mission, and sometimes missions are different between desks in the same organization.

For an investigative outlet, impact occurs only when real-world events happen — like when a city changes its laws. But for an outlet focused on explanatory journalism, impact is simply informing people, which is hard to gauge. Getting a new sushi place packed in the days following a glowing review can also be considered impact for the dining section in a local paper.

For some organizations, there's a high bar to consider something impact. Journalists don't want to take credit for something that was part of a big or collaborative reporting effort, for instance. For others, reporting smaller impacts — like emails from readers — can amount to something bigger in the aggregate.

In both approaches, it is important to make impact reporting as streamlined as possible, which is our main goal at Impacto. Through the platform, the user is presented with a dashboard that shows "insights" —  things that our algorithm thinks is a potential impact. The user selects the insight and adds descriptive text, and then the impact is recorded.

Tools such as Google Forms or Typeform to achieve something similar, lacking the web-scraping tools built into Impacto.

2. Is the impact for an internal or external audience?

There are essentially two audiences for impact reports: internal and external.

Internal impact reports might be useful to promote reporters or decide which stories to pursue. External impact reports, on the other hand, should be thought of as an accountability — and, why not, marketing — tool. External impact reports are used by nonprofit news organizations to get more donors, and to show current ones that their money is well-spent.

Internal impact reports are baked into Impacto’s platform — you can browse impacts by time, desk, tags or reporter. Although there is no template for external reports, it’s just a matter of building a page or report based on the impacts that are recorded on the platform.

Getting your story picked up by a local paper or retweeted by a senator might not be interesting to your readers, but can be a strong signal that your journalism is reaching decision-makers and being amplified to a larger audience. This can be useful for internal evaluation — at least to complement the performance evaluation based on quantitative metrics like pageviews. Properly setting tools like Google Alerts, IFTTT or Zapier and feeding the information to a spreadsheet (AirTable is a nice choice!) can help you get this information. Getting someone responsible for circulating in the newsroom all impacts recorded in a given month via Slack or email might be enough.

But remember: there is really no standard today. For an organization like ProPublica, impact is a section of the website. For The Marshall Project, when there's a significant impact for an individual story, they send emails to newsletter subscribers. But an impact report can be as simple as a bullet-point story, like this one published by Folha de S. Paulo.

In sum, there's no definitive way to track the results of the journalism that a newsroom produces. But as soon as you start doing it, you can clearly see its importance.

Main image CC-licensed by Unsplash via Patrick