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Why we invented a new metric for measuring readership

April 2, 2024

The media landscape is shifting. Reader habits are changing. Attention is fragmented. Platforms are untrustworthy. Past revenue, distribution, and growth models no longer reliably work. And while some are tackling these problems, the journalism industry as a whole is struggling to keep up.

One particular piece of the journalism model that is broken? How news organizations measure their readership. 

The 19th, where I am audience director, is a nonprofit newsroom, but we’re not immune to needing to show our funders and supporters the reach of our journalism; nor are we immune to the instability of social and search platforms in referring people to our website. 

We used to measure our journalism’s reach and impact with website views, visitors, and engaged time—the methods many of our funders insisted on. But even when we included stats about our social media engagement, newsletter subscribers, and member community, our audience data reports still didn’t accurately reflect the ways we were serving people with our journalism.

Because in our current reality, journalism exists in various formats splintered across platforms and products. People are just as likely to get their news on Instagram as from a news website. It no longer makes sense to rely primarily on measuring readership by traditional website metrics. 

At the same time, we had proof that we were meeting our audiences with our journalism—in their inboxes, on Instagram Stories, on YouTube, and in hundreds of partner publications nationwide. We just needed a new way to show it. 

So late last year, we decided to chart a new course and build our own custom metric.

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The result was a new baseline we’re calling total journalism reach, or the number of times our journalism, in its many forms, is consumed by our audiences. Right now, it includes website views; views of our stories that are republished on other news sites and aggregation apps, like Apple News; views of our newsletters based on how many emails we send and their average open rates, reduced for inflation since Apple implemented a new privacy feature; event attendees; video views; podcast listens; and Instagram post views. 

These metrics represent where we currently publish our reporting. We decided not to include unique visitors because we can’t measure uniques across all of these platforms, and we’re aiming for as much consistency as possible. We include Instagram because it’s the only social media platform where we include key information from the story in the post itself; readers don’t have to continue to our site to get the news, like they may need to do from a Facebook or LinkedIn post. It’s also flexible—we can add or remove metrics to it as our strategy shifts.

Our model isn’t perfect; no metric is. We must rely on third-party tools, we are constantly learning, and platforms often change. We don’t have a data scientist on staff, and our data collection is largely manual. 

But total journalism reach still gets us closer to accurately representing all of the ways our audiences consume our journalism. And that, in turn, will help us innovate for a changing world. 

Alexandra Smith is the audience director for The 19th.