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NewsHour aims to expand reach among influencers, young adults

Katie Donnelly and Erin Roberts

On December 7, 2009, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer relaunched as The PBS NewsHour . The transition included a quickened pace and a revamped website with additional video content and a design created to appeal to a younger, more digitally-engaged audience. NewsHour producers also made a significant effort to create a better connection between online and on-air content. As of April 2010, NewsHour has seen a 25 percent increase among 18- to 34-year-olds, a group that has been traditionally underrepresented among their viewers.

NewsHour’s producers utilize a variety of tools to assess the program's reach and influence, including Nielsen, Arbitron, Google Analytics, Mediamark Research & Intelligence, DART, Limelight, the Erdos & Morgan Survey of Opinion Leaders and their own proprietary research. Robert Flynn, NewsHour's Vice President of Communications and Marketing, explains that using Nielsen as a starting point, NewsHour's producers look at information on ratings and audience delivery, including: how many people view online videos and read transcripts, how much time they spend on the site, the number of unique and returning visitors, email responses and comments, press pickup, reposts, and comments from other media organizations. "And then," says Flynn, "Every now and again, we actually see action. But our real goal in life is not to cause the action, because we don’t view ourselves as having any advocacy position, but just to put the information out there."

While reach is the main focus of NewsHour's measurement strategy, its producers are interested in more than just the numbers —they also examine whether or not they are reaching influencers. According to Flynn:

We know that the people who watch the NewsHour are among key opinion leaders and influentials in the country. We have clear data that tells us that these people are not only influential, they put a lot of stock in what they pull from the NewsHour and they are making decisions about important things everyday, ergo they need to be informed, they look to us to provide that information.

In addition to trying to expand their influence, NewsHour producers are also invested in having an inclusive program, not only in terms of audience, but also in terms of representation. While Flynn says that the NewsHour team can't directly control the diversity of their audience, what they can do is "control the diversity of the faces and the views that shows up on the NewsHour. Our nightmare is to have a panel of five people discussing a certain topic and have them all be middle-aged white men. We’re really looking to have age, race, gender, points of view to be as broad as possible."

In addition to their use of quantitative data to measure who they are reaching, NewsHour's producers also rely on direct feedback from their audience, which often comes in the form of email messages. Flynn explains:

We get emails every day – NewsHour viewers are extremely outspoken and they watch the program much closer than we do, and they’re a pretty good indicator if they think we’re relevant or whether they think we got a story the right way or whether we missed it. So we have this daily conversation with our audience – they help us figuring out whether we’re hitting the mark or not.

NewsHour also hosts regular online forums in order to better engage their audience. Through these forums and other online engagement strategies, Flynn has learned that "the digital space is where we can have the most direct engagement, because people can interact whenever, wherever, however they want with our content." Direct interaction with audience members—whether through email messages, focus groups, surveys or online comments—can really help to fill in the gaps that numerical data often leaves behind. NewsHour's producers examine several qualitative questions, including: how do audience members feel about the NewsHour, are they more likely to believe something because it comes from NewsHour, and where do they go with the information that they learn on the program? The last question is often the most difficult to track — while there are tools to measure how audience members engaged with the content on the NewsHour website, for example, there are no tools currently in existence that can efficiently measure whether NewsHour viewers donated money to a cause, contacted their representatives, or organized events based on information they heard on the program. And, as Flynn mentioned, public broadcasters typically want to be seen as providers of information, not advocates.

Until recently, public broadcasters have focused almost exclusively on how many people encountered their content, not who those people are or how they interacted with the content. NewsHour's small steps toward measuring influence and engagement may be emblematic of a potential larger shift within the public broadcasting sphere.