The newsonomics of measuring the real impact of news

Ken Doctor at Nieman Journalism Lab: “Hello there! It’s me, your friendly neighborhood Tweet Button. What if you could tap me and unlock a brand new source of funding for startup news sources of all kinds? What if, even better, you the reader could tap that money loose with a single click?
That’s the delightfully simple conceit behind a little widget,, you may have seen popping up as you traverse the news web. It’s social. It’s viral. It uses OPM (Other People’s Money) — and maybe a little bit of your own. It makes a new case to funders and maybe commercial sponsors. And it spits out metrics around the clock. It aims to be a convergence widget, acting on that now-aging idea that our attention is as important as our wallet. Consider it a new digital Swiss Army knife for the attention economy. TWEET
It’s impossible to tell how much of an impact may have. It’s still in its second round of testing at six of the U.S.’s most successful independent nonprofit startups — MinnPost, Center for Investigative Reporting, The Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego, ProPublica, and the Center for Public Integrity — but as in all things digital, timing is everything. And that timing seems right.
First, let’s consider that spate of new news sites that have sprouted with the winter rains — Bill Keller’s and Neil Barsky’s Marshall Project being only the latest. It’s been quite a run — from Ezra Klein’s Project X to Pierre Omidyar’s First Look (and just launched The Intercept) to the reimagining of FiveThirtyEight. While they encompass a broad range of business models and goals (“The newsonomics of why everyone seems to be starting a news site”), they all need two things: money and engagement. Or, maybe better ordered, engagement and money. The dance between the two is still in the early stages of Internet choreography. Get the sequences right and you win.
Second, and related, is the big question of “social” and how our sharing of news is changing the old publishing dynamic of editors deciding what we’re going to read. Just this week, two pieces here at the Lab — one on Upworthy’s influence and one on the social/search tango — highlighted the still-being-understood role of social in our news-reading lives.
Third, funders of news sites, especially Knight and other lead foundations, are looking for harder evidence of the value generated by their early grants. Millions have been poured into creating new news sites. Now they’re asking: What has our funding really done? Within that big question, is only one of several new attempts to demonstrably measure real impact in new ways. We’ll take a brief look at those impact initiatives below….
If is all about impact and money, then it’s got good company. There are at least two other noteworthy impact-measuring projects going on.

  • The Center for Investigative Reporting’s Impact Tracker effort impact-tracking initiative launched last fall. The big idea: getting beyond the traditional metrics like unique visitors and pageviews to track the value of investigative and enterprise work. To that end, CIR has hired Lindsay Green-Barber, a CUNY-trained social scientist, and given her a perhaps first-ever title: media impact analyst.We can see the fruits of the work around CIR’s impressive Returning Home to Battle veterans series. On that series, CIR is tracking such impacts as change and rise in the public discourse around veterans’ issues and related allocation of government resources. The notion of good journalism intended to shine a light in dark places has been embedded in the CIR DNA for a long time; this new effort is intended to provide data — and words — to describe progress toward solutions. CIR is working with The Seattle Times on the impact of that paper’s education reporting, and CIR may soon look at more partnerships as well. Related: CIR is holding two “Dissection” events in New York and Washington in April, bringing together journalists, funders, and social scientists to widen the media impact movement.
  • Chalkbeat, a growing national education news site, too, is moving on impact analysis. It’s called MORI (Measures of our Reporting’s Influence), and it’s a WordPress plugin. Says Chalkbeat cofounder Elizabeth Green: “We built MORI to solve for a problem that I guess you could call ‘impact loss.’ We knew that our stories were having all kinds of impacts, but we had no way of keeping track of these impacts or making sense of them. That meant that we couldn’t easily compile what we had done in the last year to share with the outside world (board, donors, foundations, readers, our moms) but also — just as important — we couldn’t look back on what we’d done and learn from it.”Sound familiar?
    After much inquiry, Chalkbeat settled on technology. “Within each story’s back end,” Green said, “we can enter inputs — qualitative data about the type of story, topic, and target audience — as well as outcomes — impacts on policy and practice (what we call ‘informed action’) as well as impacts on what we call ‘civic deliberation.’”