Transitioning to GA4

I’ve been working in digital journalism long enough to remember a time when Google Analytics didn’t exist. Shay Totten headshotNowadays, it’s such a facet of digital metrics analysis that it’s hard to imagine how we ever did without it. (While it’s true that Google is not the only website analytics platform, it is the most ubiquitous.)

Many newsrooms have relied on Google’s Universal Analytics since 2012, so imagine our collective surprise when Google announced in 2020 they were going to do away with GUA and replace it with Google Analytics 4 (GA4) on July 1, 2023. It seemed like such a faraway date, and now it feels like…quick, everybody panic!

With all of the challenges facing product teams right now (looking at you, Twitter and Meta), switching to and learning a new analytics platform isn’t on the top of anyone’s list. 

Since March, API’s Product Strategy team (with help from consultants Brad Gerick and Claire Tran) has hosted a series of training sessions to help newsrooms navigate the switch to GA4 ahead of the July 1 cutoff date. And trust me, this is one deadline you don’t want to blow off as you don’t want to risk losing access to any real-time analytics data.

We hope these resources and our FAQ will help you feel less overwhelmed, especially if you’re a small team (or a team of one). 

Best of luck, you got this. 

Shay Totten, Newsroom Success Manager

Chapter 2

An introduction to Google’s new analytics tool


  • Active Users is a new, default metric in GA4 that includes the number of users who have an engaged session. Universal Analytics had Total Users as the default. 
  • Bounce Rate is calculated differently in GA4. In GA4, a bounce occurs when the user views a single page and is on the site for fewer than 10 seconds (though, you can change the length of the timer). In Universal Analytics, a bounce occurred when the user viewed a single page, no matter how long they were on the page.
  • Events in GA4 include five default parameters and up to 25 custom parameters. Universal Analytics included four default parameters and no custom parameters.

Google Tag Manager is our recommended way of setting up for GA4. The three main elements you’ll be working with are triggers (user actions), tags (output into GA4) and variables (details). Here’s what a page_view event might look like, with the five default parameters and some custom parameters.



  • How do I set up a Google Tag Manager account? What are some basic things I should be aware of? What are some of the best custom tags to set up?
    • Go to tagmanager.google.com and use the same account for which you sign into Google Analytics. To simplify the process, you’ll create a container, publish it and put the code on your site. From there, the tags you set up depend on the user behavior you want to track, e.g. newsletter sign-ups, account creations, tracking bylines or sections as parameters in the page_view event.
  • Can you reuse a trigger from a legacy GA setup?
    • Yes, most Google Tag Manager triggers that work for Universal Analytics should also work for GA4. You will, however, need to create a new GA4 tag, which requires slightly different settings (mainly, parameters).
  • For folks new to setting up analytics tracking: What is the recommended set up for a website plus apps in GA4? 
    • If you have both a website and an app(s), you should create one data stream for each within the same GA4 property, e.g. springfieldnews.net would be a Web stream in your GA4 property. Springfield News iOS would be an App stream, and Springfield News Android would be a second app stream, for a total of three streams.

Chapter 3

Setting up events, tracking and reports

One of the main issues we’ve heard from newsrooms transitioning to Google Analytics 4 is that the ways to filter and group data about people visiting your website or app is like learning a new language.

As we pointed out last week, there are some key changes in GA4 that will make direct comparisons to Universal Analytics data tricky, if not impossible in some instances. That means <<groan>> most newsrooms are going to lose about a year’s worth of comparative data. That is, unless you are one of the rare newsrooms who set up a GA4 instance last year and have a stockpile of data. If you did that, pat yourself on the back and may all your performance reviews be glowing.

For the rest of us, the bottom line is: If you’re stressed about losing a year’s worth of growth analysis, know that you’re not alone. Everyone’s in the same boat. Except maybe those Adobe Analytics people … but I digress.

This week we’re diving into how to set up events in GA4. Next week, we’re going to go deeper into reports.

As always, best of luck. You got this!



Events are the foundation of Google Analytics data, triggered by user interactions on your website. GA4 has four types of events:

  • Automatically collected events are default and collected no matter what.
  • Enhanced measurement events are default, but you can opt out.
  • Recommended events are not out-of-the-box ready, but they’re a good starting point to tailor further to your website.
  • Custom events are completely from scratch

A pyramid, with Automatically Collected at the bottom; Enhanced Measurement on top of that; Recommended on top of that; and Custom at the top.

Whenever you want to track something as an event, we recommend starting at the bottom of the pyramid and seeing if it’s already available.

If not, move up to the next level of the pyramid.

To view events in GA4, click on the Reports tab, then Engagement, then Events. Click into an event (eg. page_view) to see details like event count, page title and other custom parameters. To set up custom dimensions for events, go to the Admin tab, then Custom Definitions.



  • How do I navigate the GA4 reporting interface? All the data I liked from UA isn’t immediately apparent in GA4 and I really haven’t had the time to dig in and recreate it.
    • There are two primary reporting tabs: Reports and Explore.
    • The Reports tab is probably more closely aligned with what you’re used to in UA, though it’s more limited. You can customize and add new reports to this dashboard, but again, it’s cumbersome.
    • Explore is more flexible and, if you take the time to set up, probably more visually appealing. The problem is that you can only share reports as read-only, so it’s not great for intra-team analysis unless you have someone manually updating and/or distributing the reports on a regular basis.
    • Resource link (video Q&A with Google Insights’ Nicole Rocchio)
  • Still wrapping my mind around how to get the data streams in for multiple apps and a website. Right now, they are separate properties altogether, and I think there is a better way to do it.
    • If they are all related to the same news organization, they should all be in the same property. This would allow you to analyze user behavior across different devices and platforms. If they’re already set up separately in GA4, you should consolidate them into a single property and delete the extra properties.
  • Does it matter if you set the user_id as an “event parameter” or a “user property”?
    • User IDs are something you set up yourself on the backend. You then have to make sure each User ID is being applied to the same user every time they log in. (This can be done by matching their user ID to an email address, for example.)
    • In fact, Google recommends not creating up a dimension (via event parameters) since you could have so many unique user IDs.
    • Resource link
  • Have another question? API answers the questions they’re frequently hearing from newsrooms

Chapter 4

A closer look at reports

One of the first comments we heard from newsrooms who started setting up a GA4 instance — aside from, “Why, Google … why?!” — was “Where are my reports?”

As with almost everything else in GA4, when compared to Universal Analytics, reports are different. You can’t really map UA reports to GA4, because as we’ve noted, user definitions have changed. Add to the mix that Data Studio has been replaced by Looker Studio. Confused yet? 

Once you get the feel for it, you’ll be able to set up ongoing reports AND even pin them to the left-hand dropdown menu under “Reports.” That said, getting to that point will likely be frustrating. And we heard reports of call limits being reached in relatively small newsrooms who are pushing data from GA4 into Looker, which of course pauses data to populate. If you are one of those newsrooms, you’re in luck! Google clearly heard the complaints and fixed the issue. Phew!

To help everyone navigate the new reporting functions, we were joined in April for a Q&A session on Reports in GA4 with Nicole Rocchio, a global news consumer insights lead at Google. Below are three key highlights from the conversation. You can also watch the full conversation here. 

Next week, we’ll have a short wrap-up with some examples of how things are going at a couple of newsrooms that have braved the transition ahead of the July 1 deadline. 

As always, best of luck. You got this!



Q: How do UA reports map to GA4?

NR: It’s best to avoid trying to map UA reports to GA4 reports as a 1:1 exercise; there are too many differences in how data is measured. This is the whole reason Google isn’t allowing migration of UA data directly into GA4. Even terms that have the same definition (such as bounce rate) might not necessarily be measured in the same way.

The Pages and Screens tab is quite more closely aligned with what you’re used to in UA. You can use the search function to find a particular page path, and add comparisons across different dimensions.

A lot of the data is … able to be looked at within the Reports without having to create your own report now. I think that sometimes in Universal Analytics, there were a lot of different things you had to do. [GA4] feels a little bit more simplified to me.

Q: How will app data look in GA4 reports?

NR: On the Pages and Screens tab, you can build a filter. Click Platform → Dimension values → Android, iOS or Web.

A screenshot of the CONDITIONS tab, in which the DIMENSION VALUES dropdown shows Android, iOS and Web options

GA4’s Cross-Device reports can give you even further insight by connecting data across a user’s multiple devices.

Q: Can you categorize your Explore reports into categories or folders like you can with UA?

NR: Yes! Head to Reports → Library. Here’s where you can store all reports you’re working on and group them into collections.

A screenshot of the reports library in GA4, including 3 sample report entries.

In addition, you can also pin any report you create to the left sidebar for easy access. Note: It’ll only appear on your login, not for others at your company.



  • Why is there a drop in traffic from UA to GA4?
    • GA4 and UA track and attribute sessions differently. GA4 uses a different sessionization algorithm that takes into account cross-device and cross-platform interactions, and it also uses a different session timeout. Read more here.
    • GA4 has a different way of handling bot traffic, it uses a machine learning model to identify and filter out bot traffic which may cause lower numbers.
  • Is the ability to configure triggers allowed or denied by a user level within GA4?
    • Triggers are actually part of GA4, not GTM. That being the case, you can set particular permission levels in GTM just like in GA. This can be done at both the account and the container level. (A container in GTM is more or less equivalent to a property in GA.)
  • Is there a way to set up GA4 to see multiple newsrooms together with the ability to segment? We have five newsrooms as part of our journalism school and share some content. We have had a shared Universal Analytics account where we could view the full url, but I’m not sure if there is a best practice for creating a GA4 platform with data from all sites.
    • You could set each newsroom up as a separate data stream in the same property and filter them by data stream.

Chapter 5

Lessons from the field + a starter checklist

This is it, our final week coming to your inbox with tips to help you transition from Google Universal Analytics (UA) to Google Analytics 4 (GA4).

By now, you’ve made a complete switch and everything looks normal and you’re humming along, right? … Right?!

I know, I know. We all do our best work under deadline pressure (or so we tell ourselves) and July 1 is  more than a month away. What’s the rush, amirite?

As part of our second full-on training session back in April we invited newsroom leaders to talk about their transition to GA4 and I’ve pulled together some highlights of our conversation. Thanks to Barry Arthur and Aaron Lancaster of WEHCO Media and Michael Denison of Science News for sharing their experiences. Full disclosure: these news organizations use API’s Metrics for News to provide insights into their audience analytics.


For Denison, audience engagement editor at Science News, the simplicity of GA4 in how it organizes user data is helpful. “GA4 clarifies things a little bit easier when you have to deal with event scope,” he said. With UA, trackable events happened at the user level, session level and the hit level. “With GA4, it breaks it down into there are users and events…that’s actually helpful in streamlining that process,” Denison said.

That simplicity is also useful when building new custom reports, Denison added. “The bout with analytics is always going to be getting to the point where you can talk about these numbers with your newsroom beyond terms of page views up good, page views down bad,” he said. “But I think explorations and building custom reports in GA4 in different ways are going to be helpful.”

Hear that? There’s hope for us yet!

The biggest challenges we’ve heard from the newsrooms who’ve transitioned to GA4: What to do with all of your historical UA data and hitting query limits in Looker (formerly DataStudio). As we noted in last week’s newsletter, Google has solved the latter problem. The historical data issue is one that each newsroom will have to solve for itself. We have some suggestions in our FAQ.

Historical and comparative data is especially tricky for WEHCO, which has nearly a dozen daily newspapers, a handful of weeklies, along with websites, web replica editions and apps for almost all those properties and a separate checkout domain—all of which were tracked in separate UA accounts. In GA4 that is all now in one account, said Arthur, WEHCO’s director of audience technology. This allows a more global look at their newsrooms and readers.

Wrangling that many properties was a big undertaking. If you have similar multiple sites and apps, Arthur has this bit of advice: Make a list of all your properties, domains, and subdomains so you don’t miss anything. In addition, WEHCO took the time to rename many of its segments in UA — essentially rewriting its own internal analytics taxonomy.

What I like about [GA4], you don’t have to deal with event labels and categories and actions for all your custom events. Whatever you want the event to be called you just name it that. In a way, it’s simpler.”

— Aaron Lancaster, data analyst for WEHCO

The issue of historical data, however, will remain a conundrum given that users definitions are changing from UA to GA4: “They don’t marry up exactly so when you’re starting to look at old data and new data and compare apples to apples, it’s hard,” said Arthur. “I think for all of us, we are going to lose about a year. So it’s going to be hard for us to determine growth and change on some of these things. You might have to look differently at your audiences.”


Make a list of all domains, subdomains, apps, etc. that you currently track separately UA to ensure you don’t miss any of your data streams when building your GA4 instance. This is especially important for multi-site news organizations.

Make a list of current UA segments and ask yourself: Do we need all of them? Are there better ways in GA4 to capture these interactions? Are there new ways to look at our audiences? Are there new events and interactions we want to track?

Follow our suggested setup process, which includes tutorials developed by Google News Initiative.

Leave yourself plenty of time to play around and explore with the new reporting functions in GA4 and time to add audiences, or data streams, you may have missed from step one.

Take a deep breath. Exhale.

Feel free to reach out if you have additional tips, suggestions, or questions. We’ll be bringing news leaders together in late July to discuss how the transition to GA4 is going. Stay tuned for registration details.


  • What will happen to legacy (UA) Google Analytics data?
    • You’ll be able to access your data for 6 months to CSV, TSV, TSV for Excel, Google Sheets, and PD. Use the Google Analytics Reporting API to export the data. Google Analytics 360 customers can also export to BigQuery.
  • Is there a way to export historical UA data, and if so, what do folks recommend?
    • The best way to do this would be with a data warehouse. One example would be BigQuery, which is owned by Google. The challenge is that, unless you have the technical skills to extract and analyze the data from these warehouses, they won’t be of much use to you. It’s probably a good idea to involve your analytics team in this process if you have one.
    • If you don’t have a dedicated analytics person/team and you want to make exporting and analyzing historical UA data a priority, it’s probably worth hiring outside help.
    • As a “last resort,” you could update as much of your data as possible into CSV files, though this would be unwieldy and probably not very user friendly from an analysis perspective.