Nonprofit news organizations increased total site traffic by an average of 75 percent between 2011 and 2013. State and regional organizations averaged more traffic than local organizations, though this was largely buoyed by The Texas Tribune, which attracted nearly 6 million visitors in 2013.

Four sites—The Lens, IowaWatch, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting and New England Center for Investigative Reporting—doubled their unique visitors in 2013. On the flip side, New Haven Independent, Oakland Local and Florida Center for Investigative Reporting experienced declines in Web traffic.

Direct to website and search accounted for over 60 percent of Web traffic for sites in 2013, though social media was the fastest-growing source of Web traffic, increasing by an average of 63 percent between 2011 and 2013.

Most sites have developed social media strategies for engaging with their readers on various platforms. The strategies generally involve regularly posting content—both sites’ own content and partner content—to Facebook and Twitter in order to remain visible. For some of the larger sites, the strategy hinges on the ability to devote full-time staffers to social media efforts, though some of the smaller, local sites have been successful in driving social media traffic by enlisting the entire reporting staff in these efforts. Facebook and Twitter are used universally by the organizations and a few have begun experimenting with other platforms, including Tumblr, YouTube and Instagram.

Across the board, sites experienced strong growth in mobile traffic. On average, 22 percent of their traffic came from mobile devices in 2013, up from 14 percent in 2012. Nearly all sites are moving to a responsive design that optimizes content viewing on mobile phones.

Driving Web Traffic

A handful of sites are thinking more creatively and using new platforms and social media-based strategies to attract and retain readers. These sites have prioritized making their content mobile-friendly and cross-linking all their content with social media accounts.

The Center for Investigative Reporting nearly quintupled its unique visitors from 243,000 in 2012 to 1.2 million in 2013 by partnering with prominent news organizations on large-scale investigations and placing an increased focus on driving traffic to its website. Additional increases in traffic have come through the site’s launch of I-Files, an investigative news channel on YouTube that averages more than 3 million views annually. The I-Files channel features the best investigative news videos from around the world; in addition to the center’s work, it carries content from The New York Times, PBS’s "Frontline" and other news organizations.

Voice of OC has increased unique page views steadily (up to 348,000 in 2013 from 284,000 in 2012 and 165,000 in 2011) through its shrewd social media strategy. The site posts its top stories to Facebook every day and tags each story by target audience, geographic location and interest to encourage greater engagement with content. Furthermore, it tracks stories’ reach using bitly links to monitor performance and make adjustments throughout the day. Its emphasis on posting stories to Facebook has partly fueled the rise of its Web traffic coming from mobile to 27 percent in 2013, and as of mid-2014 mobile approached 40 percent of all traffic.

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Most nonprofit news sites track basic Web analytics metrics (such as visitors, followers and page views) to understand their reach, and use proxies such as blog comments and event attendance to get a sense of audience engagement. But most organizations struggle to more methodically capture data about the impact of their reporting. A few organizations are beginning to push beyond standard Web metrics and experiment with new forms of impact measurement.

Measuring Impact

Chalkbeat defines impact as when its reporting influences the debate on educational issues and on decisions made in the education field. It has developed an impact tracking system called MORI (Measures of Our Reporting’s Influence), which it uses to help plan content around the type of impact it seeks and to measure the impact of content. A WordPress plug-in, MORI enables reporters to enter story characteristics such as story type, audience and theme, as well as evidence of impact, including actions that were informed by the story, civic deliberations spurred by the story and pickups of the story. The program aggregates this information into reports that can be used to track Chalkbeat’s progress toward its annual editorial and engagement goals.

ProPublica employs a Tracking Report, an internal document that is updated daily and shared with management and the board of directors monthly. The report records each story published as well as official actions (such as announcements of policy reviews or statements by public officials), opportunities for change (hearings, studies or commission appointments to study an issue), and actual change that can be causally connected to ProPublica’s work. ProPublica maintains the Tracking Report for months and sometimes years beyond the publication of a story, acknowledging that the types of change ProPublica seeks to create through reporting may take a long time to come about.

WisconsinWatch has developed a detailed system of tracking the distribution of its stories. The site has set up Google Alerts using reporter names, story names and more, and also searches on the sites of the top news organizations that pick up their stories. Information gathered from these searches—type of story, story elements published, names and geographic locations of distributing publications, readership of distributing publications, and more—is recorded and visualized using mapping software including BatchGeo and Tableau.

The Center for Investigative Reporting is the first media organization with a full-time Ph.D. in social sciences devoted to cataloging, measuring and analyzing media impact. The analyst has developed a system for cataloging offline impact–real-world change—that results from journalism. Using an impact taxonomy developed with input from a wide range of media organizations, the analyst has created a system for converting anecdotal evidence (i.e., media pickup, editorials referencing the work, mentions by public officials, new laws and direct response from audience, among others) into qualitative data sets that can be analyzed to better understand what impact is and how it happens. To create the data set, reporters and editors complete a Web form for each instance of real-world change associated with their work. This information flows into a database that can be easily sorted and filtered; the analyst can then identify patterns and questions for deeper inquiry. The center has consulted with a number of media organizations to help them set impact goals, develop strategies, and construct plans for measurement and analysis. During these coaching engagements, organizations conveyed their interest in using a tracking system such as the one the center uses(currently built using Podio, a workflow collaboration platform). In response to this demand, the Center for Investigative Reporting is developing a proprietary tool that other organizations will be able to use.

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