The Guardian discovers what’s ‘deeply read’

The news outlet looks to a new engagement metric and shares it with readers


Publishers have grappled with story metrics for decades.

Metrics reflect how an audience gauges content — not just in size but also in interest.

News executives have debated metric prioritization, which guides organizations to bend content strategies to attract the largest and the right audience. The metric strategy depends on the business structure, such as where it derives its revenue.

For many years, The Guardian has produced online journalism that is recognized as one of the best in the world. More than half of its revenue now comes from readers who donate to the organization, so The Guardian sustains its news operation without a paywall.

The Guardian has also known that the secret sauce to building that type of following, revenue and trust, is tied to the amount of time readers spend on stories.

The Guardian is now sharing some of that data with its readership. The news organization has added a “Deeply read” headline list to its website, a sibling to its “Most viewed” list. Essentially, The Guardian now shares a list of stories other readers have found worth reading past the first few paragraphs.

The Deeply read’s origins derive from a nuanced metric shared internally with writers and editors.

“So, page views matter — we want to find reach, we want to get our best journalism in front of people,” said Chris Moran, the head of editorial innovation at The Guardian News & Media. “But to balance out the risk of clickbait, you also want to know whether it’s engaging people as well, as we always had median attention time. But that was always confusing for journalists — everybody cared about it — but it’s really hard to judge [what was a good time spent on a story]. And so, about six years ago, we started thinking about how to make more sense of that.”

The Guardian recently added a “Deeply read” list to its “Most viewed” to show readers what others found engaging enough to read past the first few paragraphs.

Moran developed a metric that built upon the median time spent on story based on page views and length. An internal dashboard gave each story a clock rating, from one to five. Five clocks meant the story performed well. As the metric proved useful, The Guardian began downplaying other metrics, such as social media shares. It also helped The Guardian understand which platforms their most interested readers came from.

As the newsroom began understanding what their readers would spend their time on, they learned valuable information.

“And, so, it just kept occurring to me that we cared about this metric … why wouldn’t we show that to our readers?” Moran said. “I played around with it, and trying to cook up little algorithms, trying to find a way of making a list like ‘Most viewed,’ but based on attention.”

The “Deeply read” list launched in February. Moran said the results have been positive so far. Readers and writers have appreciated the attention to engaging pieces that may not have originally caught readers’ attention.

“I think only a publisher could do this,” Moran said. “And it comes from an understanding of the data. It comes from understanding what journalism is and how it connects specifically with readers. It is a direct reaction to very simplistic engagement metrics, which power something like Facebook in ways that we know are increasingly toxic. I really hope people copy it, but I also hope it kickstarts a bit more thinking from people in our positions. I am absolutely certain there are healthier ways of surfacing great journalism in various interesting ways.”

Bob Miller has spent more than 25 years in local newsrooms, including 12 years as an executive editor with Rust Communications. Bob also produces an independent true crime investigative podcast called The Lawless Files.


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