What ONA14 taught me about analytics, content and usability

These are a few points I’ve been thinking about since the Online News Association 2014 conference wrapped up. They’re based on conference sessions, conversations at our booth at the Midway and my own experience as a newsroom developer.

1. A little bit of data never hurt anyone.

NPR and the Guardian demoed analytics dashboards they’ve created for their reporters and editors. The appeal of the dashboards is that they can interest reporters in analytics by favoring accessibility over comprehensiveness. NPR, for example, had clear graphics and tables for device types, sources, and referrals.

But let’s be clear up front: These dashboards aren’t for complex analysis or long-term planning. That’s the task of specialists with the appetite for a big plate of raw Omniture data.

These dashboards also aren’t just about pageviews. They’re not out to change which stories reporters write. The data we can give reporters today is more nuanced than that.

For reporters who are hyper-sensitive to pageview-driven journalism, analytics today can answer questions they might not have even known they could ask: How did people find my story? At what time of day? On what devices?

Reporters care about the quality of life their stories enjoy on the web, and a well-thought-out dashboard can help them monitor some basic vital signs.

Graham Tackley of the Guardian offered a neat example of this kind of empowerment. One of the Guardian’s foreign correspondents noticed, with the help of the analytics dashboard, that their stories were being posted at an odd hour in the country they were reporting from. The correspondent notified the editors, who then could better plan and promote the content accordingly.

(Politico’s Julia Haslanger made a couple of additional points about this in her own ONA recap).

2. Publishing tools need to age gracefully.

At Alley, I often work with publishers who need software that bends to meet the needs of their content and of their readers without breaking.

These tools have to handle breaking news, layered investigative journalism, and whatever other genres of content their users create. The results have to look good on any device that finds them, and they have to travel well on social media and search results.

The structure of publishing tools is important. A sturdy one can go a long way towards making sure the content publishers create today is easily optimized for mobile, social, and search in a way that meets the needs of users, wherever they are and whatever they’re doing.

But flexibility is important, too, because the environment keeps changing. The devices and use cases that aren’t here just yet have a habit of arriving suddenly. So as developers, we need to build systems that can be dismantled easily when they’re no longer needed and reassembled to face new challenges.

Amy Webb’s “10 Tech Trends for Journalists” presentation reinforced that point. For example: Publishers might not need “glance-optimized headlines” just yet, but both Webb and the Nieman Lab have now noted why they might need them soon.

3. We can make sure the grass really _is_ greener.

I look at WordPress for hours and hours every day. For me, it’s easy to forget how refreshingly simple the WordPress or Drupal interface might be to someone who spends hours and hours of their day looking at a stodgy CMS that wasn’t built for the web.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised at how often, after I told someone what we do at Alley, I heard: “Oh, I wish we could use WordPress at work for…”

These responses were useful reminders that, along with having structure and flexibility, publishing systems still need to be usable. No amount of “flexibility” or “structure” in a WordPress site can save it if using the site becomes a buzzkill.

Structure, flexibility, and usability are values, and of course values can conflict. The difficult yet fulfilling part of my work as a developer for publishers is to keep learning about modern newsrooms to help build systems for them that balance those values.

This was my fourth year attending ONA. Each year, I’ve left the conference inspired by its mix of journalists and technologists, not to mention the impressive Online Journalism Awards winners. All of it is in the service of improving journalism on the web, and the topics I mention here only begin to approach all there is to think about.