So far this week, Chris Machniak has proven that readers in Grand Rapids like their news consumption later in the day than those in Ann Arbor, broken down digital subscription trends by source, quantified declines in readership from Facebook and dug into the finer points of reader response to advice columns.
In other words, a routine week for MLive’s chief data analyst.
Machniak is not an editor, but his work informs and shapes the journalism MLive does – from decisions editors make on what to cover, how to present it most optimally and how to understand how it is engaging with you, the reader.
“It brings the audience to the table and in real-time,” he said. “That’s transformative and it can help us stay both connected and grounded with our communities. Numbers help provide that roadmap in ways we could never do before.”
I frequently refer to Machniak as our navigator, analyzing all of the inputs from multiple gauges and keeping the ship on course. (You also may remember him from his recent guest column on “long COVID.”)
And he’s right about “before” – prior to 2009, when our company began moving from a print-centric model to the online world, there was no map and precious little information to steer by.
For most of my career, the stories that made the front page – what was considered the most vital news of the day – were chosen by a small panel of editors, or sometimes just the editor in chief. Usually, those editors were middle-aged white men; they may have been capable and experienced journalists, but they represented a very narrow slice of their community.
How did reporters make it onto the front page? By writing the type of stories that editors typically selected for the front page.
Journalists are not supposed to assume, but that’s pretty much how the system was built – we assumed that you’d be interested in the same things we were interested in. How did we know we were right? We didn’t.
Machniak, whose first stint with our company was as a reporter and copy editor at The Flint Journal from 1998 to 2009, remembers his colleagues noticing that knowledge gap.
“We had some grizzled veterans who thought some of the most-read stories weren’t on the front page but maybe page A12 or B14,” he said.
In 2009, we reduced print to three days a week in some of our traditional newspaper markets. That made our digital strategy critical. What did I know about digital strategy? Not much. But I learned fairly early on that we could track readership of stories online in ways that weren’t possible with print.
The data showed some stories we thought were vital were not read much at all. We were able to experiment with topics, presentation and headlines and then track the response from readers. We were able to show a reporter that a story they’d spent a week working on wasn’t that interesting to the audience – and then put that energy to better use.
It also sparked new and important conversations about what constituted news. Long-held assumptions and biases of editors were challenged in good ways, and we were able to generate more diversity and breadth in our coverage of our communities.
When work we knew was essential to the community was not well-read – for instance, watchdog stories on government spending or closed meetings – we realized it was our responsibility to find ways to elevate and present it in better ways. Not stop doing it, but instead make it more interesting and accessible.
I’m not the smartest guy in the room. But I was smart enough when we launched MLive Media Group in 2012 to hire Machniak back into our company and make analytics central to what we do. His myriad dashboards and tools give us the confidence to launch new topics and products and the insight to stop doing things that aren’t working for our readers.
“I’m still a journalist in many ways, where the community I serve is the newsroom and my ‘scoops’ can hopefully help our journalism find bigger and relevant audiences for their work,” he said. “The analytics coldly show when we’re reaching people and when we’re not.”
I’ve stopped being surprised or humbled when people draw up their own version of a front page. I just listen.
“Sometimes,” Machniak says, “the numbers show we have plenty of people who still just want to read Dear Abby – which may have been on page C16 back in the day.”
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John Hiner is the vice president of content for MLive Media Group. If you have questions you’d like him to answer, or topics to explore, share your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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