Stop chasing clicks and instead track impact
News organizations are awash in numbers — we’ve never had so much access to so much information about our work and our readers. But that access can come at a cost: confusion over what’s important. Clarifying which numbers really matter and tying them to the organization’s wider goals ensures that all staff, regardless of team or tenure, understand what the organization is working toward and what it values. In a world full of constant noise, that clarification also helps prioritize the work. As a nonprofit, Chalkbeat values driving impact and building relationships. Here’s how we’ve created goals and built a culture around those outcomes.
News organizations often aim for reach above everything else. But volume metrics — uniques and pageviews, for example — only signal breadth of audience. And focusing on those top-of-the-funnel metrics can feed unhealthy discourse by encouraging overly dramatic and even misleading headlines; stories designed to shock and polarize; and clicks at the expense of listening to readers. The tradeoff might be a smaller audience. But metrics that tie to building relationships with communities over time, contributing to the wider conversation, and driving real-world action speak much better to journalism’s power to make change. At Chalkbeat, we’ve embedded those metrics into our culture.
Right from Chalkbeat’s inception in 2013, we set impact as our highest goal.
We also track web analytics, but prioritizing impact as our top aim helped build the kind of journalistic culture we wanted to create. Our white paper laid out our method of tracking how, when, and where Chalkbeat has informed debate and helped drive real-world action. Since then, we have set impact goals as part of our annual goal-setting process and regularly track our progress.
We built a simple tool.
We created a taxonomy to reflect different types of impact and to make it easier for journalists to record them. (Yes, reporters and editors are expected to log impacts — it’s also a way to brag about their successes.) A straightforward Typeform feeds into a spreadsheet that sorts by month, bureau, and type. We call our tool MORI, for Measures of Our Reporting’s Influence. And we made a point to include small-scale changes as impacts, such as a change in curriculum at one school or a decision by one parent, believing they can be just as important as the more sweeping ones that often take home top journalism prizes. No organization can track every single impact their reporting might have contributed to. But as beat reporters committed to community engagement, we know that building strong relationships means keeping in touch to follow up on conversations, and those relationships also result in people reaching back out to follow up with us — tracking impact is inextricably linked to our reporting.
We also track impact over time. Impact might arrive months or even years after a story publishes, which also helps to guard against the tendency to prioritize the immediacy of pageviews. GreatSchools overhauled its ratings, for example, close to 10 months after a Chalkbeat investigation found that the system effectively steered families away from schools serving more Black, Hispanic, and low-income students. And we were still logging impacts four years after Chalkbeat reporting revealed financial conflicts of interest and dismal academic results at two Indiana virtual charter schools.
We celebrate our impacts.
Our impact tracking tool makes adoption easier, but culture eats tools for lunch. Internally, we include “spotlight on impact” presentations at our all-team meetings and have a dedicated Slack channel that automatically logs impacts as journalists enter them. We also report our impact numbers and highlights in weekly and monthly recaps on progress to goals. Externally, we publish yearly reports on our website, feature impacts in our grant reports with funders, and let readers know about the impact our reporting has. Proving our reporting can inform communities and equip them to make decisions expands support from donors and sponsors, which in turn enables us to invest more reporting resources in those communities. Initial impact, additional support, heightened impact — it’s a virtuous cycle that has powered Chalkbeat’s fast-paced growth across the country.
We rank relationships over volume.
On the audience side, sure, we track those top-of-the-funnel metrics that everyone else does. But loyal readers — those who visit Chalkbeat three or more times in a month — represent our north star audience metric. We chose that metric because it reflects relationship building, trust, and a reporting outlook where we listen to what people need, not just tell them what we think they should know. We see evidence that we meet our audience’s needs in our annual survey: Almost three-quarters of respondents shared something they read in Chalkbeat with teachers, school administrators, or parents. And 63% said if Chalkbeat ceased to exist, they’d feel they'd lost a source of news they can’t find anywhere else.
We make metrics work for us.
In 2020, we introduced a new metric further down the audience funnel: engaged reader actions. This tracks the number of people who attend our events and/or respond to callouts. While this number is a small fraction of our total users in a month, it’s much more meaningful to us because it’s about creating relationships with our communities and inviting them to participate in our work. It also serves as proof of the value we provide: the chance for input and conversation, not only access to information. In tracking this metric, we even discovered a benefit to boosting repeat readers: Local events are great ways to increase newsletter subscribers, another signal of relationship building, trust, and loyalty. For more on callouts and events, see “Earn the trust of a diverse audience by investing in relationships.”
- Put a stake in the ground.
You can’t track everything, so be clear about what’s most important to your organization.
- Decide what impact means to you.
Think about how you want to define it, and build a simple tracking tool. (Need a sounding board? Reach out to us.)
- Consider metrics that suit your own organization, and don’t be afraid to invent new ones.
What is the Local News Field Guide?
The Local News Field Guide is a resource for journalists and news entrepreneurs tackling the ever-changing landscape of news. The guide is written by staff members of Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization that provides essential local education reporting.
The Local News Field Guide is supported by Chalkbeat's partnership with the Google News Initiative (GNI).