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Online News Startups Need More Data to Convert Users into Supporters

For Immediate Release

 May 30, 2012

Contact: Jan Schaffer,

Erin Polgreen,

 Washington, D.C. – The rise of social media tools has empowered online news startups to distribute their content, market their sites and monitor users. However, most small news sites say they cannot lasso data to track whether they are turning users into supporters who will help their sites survive, a new J-Lab study reports today.

Nearly eight in 10 respondents to a national online survey said they could not measure whether their audience-engagement strategies were also converting readers into advertisers, donors, content contributors or volunteers.

“Such an effort is beyond our capacity,” said one respondent. “We need help,” said another.

These are among key findings of a new survey, funded by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, focusing on how “digital- first” news sites are engaging their audiences and measuring that engagement.

“These small sites can measure interaction with their content, but they don’t have good tools to measure meaningful engagement,” said Jan Schaffer, director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism, which spearheaded the research. “This affects both the future of their operations and the impact they can have in their communities.”

Social media connectors such as Facebook and Twitter were highly valued, but they were primarily used to alert users to news stories or information.

New analytical tools give these news startups some useful data, but survey respondents said their top metric for measuring engagement was still website usage – unique visitors and page views. Many expressed dissatisfaction with the information they get.

“We feel these numbers only give us part of the information we need,” said one respondent. “We’re interested not just in breadth of engagement but more in depth of engagement.”

As part of the report, media strategist Erin Polgreen took an in-depth look at respondents from Chicago, where the McCormick Foundation is based.

To counter the “broadcast” mentality that still reigns when it comes to triggering and measuring audience engagement, the report developed a set of concrete recommendations for news startups and the groups that support them. Key is increased support for the development of both new engagement-tracking tools and audience-conversion strategies that facilitate revenue. The report also urges training in the use of currently available analytical tools and the sharing of best practices in engaging audiences.

About the Survey

The survey reached out to 783 “digital-first” news startups to explore what strategies they are using to engage audiences and measure that engagement. Of the 278 who responded, 239 (86%) completed the full survey; 39 respondents answered a portion of the questions. Overall, respondents offered more than 1,300 open-ended comments describing creative strategies they are using to involve their audiences in community issues and information.

At least four types of engagement surfaced in the survey:

  • Engagement as outreach, driving users to consume content.
  • Engagement as reaction, inviting users to comment, share, like and chat.
  • Engagement as stakeholder participation, getting users to contribute stories, time, funding.
  • Engagement as civic participation, activating audience members to address community issues.

“As these small startups build new toolboxes to connect with their audiences, they need new ways to identify and measure the different strata of engagement,” Schaffer said.

About the Robert R. McCormick Foundation

The McCormick Foundation is committed to fostering communities of educated, informed and engaged citizens. Through philanthropic programs, Cantigny Park and museums, the Foundation helps develop citizen leaders and works to make life better in our communities. The Foundation was established as a charitable trust in 1955, upon the death of Colonel Robert R. McCormick, the longtime editor and publisher of the Chicago Tribune. The Robert R. McCormick Foundation is one of the nation’s largest foundations, with more than $1 billion in assets. For more information, please visit

The Robert R. McCormick Foundation is committed to fostering communities of educated, informed and engaged citizens.

About J-Lab

J-Lab is a journalism catalyst for igniting news ideas that work. It funds pilot projects, awards innovations in journalism and shares practical insights from years of working with news creators. It is a center of American University’s School of Communication (SOC).

SOC is a laboratory for professional education, communication research and innovative production in the fields of journalism, film and media arts and public communication, working across media platforms and with a focus on public affairs and public service.

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