How Chartbeat wants to help save the media industry

Newspapers and magazines used to publish content into a kind of void: they knew how many people subscribed, but that was about it — everything else was guesswork based on consumer surveys and other mumbo-jumbo. But online, every click and interaction can be tracked and charted and graphed over time, to create a picture of what is happening at any minute of the day. Is that good or bad for the news business? Tony Haile, general manager of Chartbeat, is convinced that the more information a publisher has, the better job they can do, and he has just launched a new service called Newsbeat to help provide that data.

Chartbeat — which was launched in 2009 by Betaworks, the New York-based incubator run by John Borthwick — provides real-time analytics for websites of all kinds, with a dashboard that shows how many people are reading a particular page at any given minute, as well as where they came from and how long they have been on the site. But in an interview with GigaOM, Haile says he wanted to create something specifically designed for publishers, in the hope that more information could help the media industry through the transition it is currently struggling with from the print world to a digital one.

Not funnels but engagement

The way publishers think about analytical data, Haile notes, is very different from the way that e-commerce companies do. Anyone who is selling something is obsessed with “funnels” — in other words, how well their site moves someone to the point where they will buy the product. Publishers, however, are more concerned about where their traffic is coming from and maximizing that (as well as engagement with readers), because for the most part their business is advertising-based. Said Haile:

For me, the most interesting thing was that this is an industry in complete transition. It’s moving away from the ‘fire-and-forget’ model of publishing to one that is much more adaptive and iterative. We thought ‘What does the newsroom look like in five years, and how can we help build it now?’

While Chartbeat shows real-time analytics for a site, Haile says Newsbeat has more data that publishers would be interested in — including detailed data about every story on a site (Chartbeat only provides detailed info for the top 20 most-read pages on a site) as well as social-sharing information. For example, one tab of data for each story shows a “sound wave-style” graph of Twitter-related activity related to that story, which an editor or writer can zoom in on and see who has been posting a link or mentioning the story on Twitter. Newsbeat also ranks the tweets based on the Klout “influence score” of the user, Haile says, so that publishers can see which tweets matter.

Chartbeat created Newsbeat by working with a group of mainstream media companies, including Forbes, Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal, as well as some new media entities such as Gawker and Fast Company. But won’t focusing so much on real-time data about traffic patterns create a “race to the bottom,” as everyone chases the high-traffic stories about Brittany Spears or Lady Gaga? Haile says he has heard all of these horror stories, but he doesn’t believe them.

Seeing how readers are responding is good

Traffic data might show that readers are really interested in racy photos of a celebrity, he says, which might help convince Gawker Media or some other outlet to focus on them, but it’s not going to make the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal do so. “Journalists deserve more credit than they get,” says the Chartbeat GM. “Knowing how readers are responding to what they’re writing isn’t going to change the way most of them write about the things that matter to them. This data is never going to result in the ‘tyranny of the popular’ — it’s just not going to happen.”

Haile said that even some of the most vociferous critics he has run into inside newsrooms are starting to see the value of the information Newsbeat provides. “I heard one of these guys say ‘It’s not enough for me to write about these important stories — I need to know that people have read them. I need to know if the headline isn’t drawing people in, or if they aren’t getting to the important point in the fourth paragraph.'”

One of the things the software can do, Haile says, is alert editors and publishers when something unusual is happening in the traffic pattern for a story. After ingesting enough of the data about a site, Newsbeat can predict what kind of readership a specific story will get during a day, Haile says, and if there is a sudden spike in readers it can alert an editor, so they can take advantage of that attention. He notes that Gawker founder Nick Denton has talked about how he built traffic at the network by spotting stories that were spiking in interest and then “doubling down” on them by throwing more resources at them.

The audience may be smarter than you think

And not only will this data not accelerate a “race to the bottom” with respect to content, Haile says it can actually help do the opposite: the Chartbeat GM says that one of the major publishers the company was working with looked at the data from Newsbeat and saw that two stories were getting large amounts of traffic: one about a case of infanticide in France and the other about Iraq. The number one story on the front page of the site was about season two of The Jersey Shore, and it was getting hardly any traffic at all — and neither of the two most-read stories were above the fold on the home page.

“So in that case, the site had an audience that was actually smarter than they thought they were,” says Haile. “Sometimes we underestimate our audience, and this can help websites see that and change the way they are doing things.”

Will the kind of data that Newsbeat provides allow some editors to become even more obsessed with lowest-common denominator stories? Undoubtedly. But I think Haile is right when he says it can also do the opposite, and show news publishers when they are misunderstanding what their readers are interested in — and it can let individual writers see whether what they are writing is having an impact or not, as well as showing them who their biggest fans are when it comes to referring traffic. As publishers try to become more efficient at serving their markets, that is clearly valuable information.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Steve Snodgrass