Saturday, 7 November 2009

Agile journalism and Web analytics are friends

I had been thinking about different ways to approach web analytics for news publishers, and specifically journalists, for a while when I came over Eric T. Petersons white paper "The Coming Revolution in Web Analytics" where he discusses what the future holds for web analytics, and what third-generation tools need to do to make it happen.

Peterson's emphasis on making decisions in real time is one that resonates highly with the agile software development methodology. Iterative processes, high information saturation and high degree of freedom have proven successful catalysts of creativity in this domain.

I wanted to check if anyone had written about the parallels of agile methods in software development with the new working environment of journalists. Google is my friend, so I entered 'agile journalism' and got about a thousand hits. So, it's not an entirely new idea.

Actually, the first use of the term 'agile journalism' that I can find (on Google) is in Arthur Symons "Studies on modern painters" where he describes the style of Helleu as "superficial draughtmanship", but at least "far more alive", "chic in all its hasty expressiveness a wholly Parisian art, hardly more serious than agile journalism, but how clever of its kind!" Symons recognizes, perhaps somewhat prematurely, the value of agility in reporting from a scene.

Several bloggers have also commented on the similarities of the shift towards agile methods in software development with media's "shift" from print to online publishing. Newspapers have "a gigantic machine with many small cogs, devoted to producing something that is frozen in time"  but enter the web and journalists must "change their way of thinking" .

Florin Duroiu recently even pointed out his epiphany that "process journalism really is agile journalism".

Others feel, more bluntly, that "the future of journalism is agile", but is anyone linking 'agile journalism' to web analytics? Googling 'agile journalism + 'web analytics' gave me no hits, and a quick scan of the initial search result didn't seem to include any discussions about how web analytics can help journalists be agile.

I have come to appreciate that journalists and front page editors really can benefit from having access to certain metrics if it enables them to react fast and see the response. The focus is not on the tool, but on the questions that arise instantly from looking at data that, for instance, don't make sense compared to the past. Can I change the picture, or the headline to drive more traffic? Are there any related articles I can link to in my text to drive down the bounce rate?

Of course, web analytics can't tell you about people's emotional response. But it can tell you that you're doing something wrong, and enable you to make up for it fast. I think the revolution in web analytics will come, at least for journalists and editors, when they get easy access to reports that are tailored for them and an assurance that anyone can be an analytics expert.

Agility comes with the willingness to experiment, and web analytics may just be the safeguard to allow that to happen.

Image: Wikimedia Commons - Paul Helleu "Madame Helleu Sur Son Yacht Letoile" 1898-1900

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