Another issue in the nonprofit news landscape is about metrics, or proof that work being underwritten is reaching an audience or perhaps having even more of an impact — such as changing public attitudes on an issue.

The question of metrics is hardly new. Commercial news organizations for years have used some numbers to establish reach with advertisers — ratings in television, demographic data about audiences, circulation and demographics for magazines and newspapers.

After grants are made and the work is produced, how do funders and news organizations determine success in the nonprofit arena? And does it go beyond establishing reach to trying to prove specific impacts, such as changing minds?

The answer is most funders ask for reach. Some, but not all, ask for proof of impact.

In general, funders have borrowed concepts from commercial business and management consulting to think about this and have begun to ask for a variety items to use in measuring their investments.

Most funders surveyed, about two-thirds, request some kind of metric, but not all ask for the same thing.

The most common requests by funders are for basic information on web traffic or social media activity. It is also fairly common for funders to ask for evidence of direct impact, such as formal hearings or new legislation.

A smaller number of funders, around 30 percent, look for numbers on audience comments, evidence of changes in public opinion or awareness of a topic, or information on distribution partners or other media use. About a quarter are interested in official responses or editorials.

[chart slug=”nonprofitethics-12c”]

When we asked nonprofit news organizations, as opposed to funders, what metrics they actually provide — the numbers were higher.

The majority, nearly 60 percent, of nonprofit news organizations said they provide funders with both web and social media analytics. About two-thirds said they provide web traffic information such as pageviews, visitors and time spent. Roughly 6 in 10 said they provide social media numbers or activity. And more than half said they provide numbers on other organizations who reference their work.

Many nonprofit news organizations also supply qualitative metrics. Half said they provide examples of direct impact from their work, i.e. formal hearings, laws changed or charges filed.

Four in 10 said they provide “evidence of changes in awareness or knowledge of an issue or topic.” About the same number say they point to responses from officials to the reporting. Nearly 4 in 10 point to “editorials written or other journalistic activities” that followed the work, and the same number point to audience comments or “other audience actions taken.”

Only three of the 72 nonprofit news organization surveyed said that as a matter of policy they don’t provide any metrics to funders.

[chart slug=”nonprofitethics-12d”]

Commercial news organizations surveyed were less inclined to provide metrics of any type.

Less than 30 percent, for instance, said they have provided web traffic information such as pageviews, visitors and time spent (about half the level reported by nonprofit media). Less than 20 percent said they provided information on social media activity.

Even fewer commercial media surveyed said they provided qualitative information. Fourteen percent, for instance, provided information on direct impact from the work, i.e. formal hearings, laws changed or charges filed (compared to half for nonprofit media). A similar number said they provided evidence of responses from officials to the reporting and “editorials written or other journalistic activities” that followed the work.

More for-profit news outlets than nonprofit news organizations said they don’t provide metrics as a matter of policy. Twenty percent they have not shared information with partners because of their policies.

Why are commercial media less inclined to provide metrics of reach and impact than nonprofit media. There are several potential explanations. Beyond policy, one another is tradition. Legacy media did not have to prove reach at the story level before and are not really organized to do so now, though online they could.

Several organizations surveyed offered that metrics hadn’t been requested. “We haven’t but would be open to some of these,” said the representative of a city newspaper.

Another explanation is that many of these commercial outlets are working with media partners, not with funders. In all, indeed, less than half of the commercial news media surveyed have relationships with foundations directly. One local digital news organization connection with the nonprofit world currently only involves internships.  They do not provide metrics: “We have not applied for any grants.”

Finally, the other reason is probably scale. These arrangements with either funders or partners are relatively small activity for commercial media.

Share with your network

You also might be interested in:

  • Successfully and efficiently marketing your work can be hard, especially for local news teams with limited resources, but marketing yourself to your audience is an essential skill for news organizations to drive revenue and promote sustainability.

  • As news teams begin thinking about their election coverage plans, it may feel like adding more tasks to an already full plate, with a fraction of the staff and resources they once had. But that doesn’t have to mean figuring out how to do more with less — maybe it’s doing less with less.

  • We reached out to Danielle Coffey, the CEO of American Press Institute’s parent corporation, the News/Media Alliance, to learn more about the legal fight for news organizations’ rights with AI.