A conversation with product engineer Abby Blachman
As the product engineer for The 19th, Abby Blachman creates technical solutions and tools that help distribute the nonprofit’s stories to as many people as possible. And republication tracking has become a key part of that work.
The 19th’s republication tool — a button that brings up the HTML of a story for publishers to copy and paste — includes a tracking pixel. That tiny invisible image embedded in the code allows the team to track where their stories get republished and roughly how many page views those stories get.
Now, The 19th is rebuilding its pixel to improve that tracking, and they will likely make it open source. We talked to Blachman about building tracking pixels and any advice she has for other news organizations navigating republication tracking.
Lytle: Why was it important for you to track republished stories from The 19th?
Blachman: We wanted to be able to understand who our audience is, and where our journalism is resonating with different audiences.
We believe that we can use the data from the tracking pixel to better understand places where our republished stories might have an impact, and then work to build relationships with these publications so that they might continue to republish our work and we might republish theirs. We’re planning to make this process easier over time and help build an ecosystem of nonprofit newsrooms that have open content available for republishing. Whenever we have data about the number of views or clicks one of our stories gets, whether on our own site or another site, we always look at it with the lens that there are people behind these numbers, and the more we can understand about the types of stories they are seeking, the better we can serve them.
Lytle: You’re working on rebuilding your tracking pixel now. What do you hope to do with the new pixel, and how does it compare to what you can track now?
Blachman: In this next version of the pixel, we are going to keep tracking the page views and the place where the view came from. But we’re also building its capacity to track unique visitors, which I think will be really important because if one user happens to reload a page 1000 times, that would be 1000 page views from the same user. It tells you something, but it doesn’t exactly tell you how wide of an audience you’re getting on a republished story.
Something else we’re considering is potentially grabbing the headline that was used in the republished story because that can be helpful information for us to know what headlines are resonating with different types of audiences. That can also be helpful for our digital production team and our SEO team.
Lytle: What would you want newsrooms to know if they are thinking about creating their own tracking pixel or going through a similar process?
Blachman: There are multiple newsrooms who have open sourced a version of this type of technology. So, I think I would start by looking at those existing tools that have public code and documentation and instructions. I would particularly encourage a newsroom that might not have a full-time engineer on staff to try to reach out to developers of those open source tools that already exist. Just say, ‘Hey, we want to implement this technology on our site. Is there anything that we should know given that we’re using WordPress — or whatever it might be?’
The other thing that I would say is, I don’t think any data collection in this vein is necessarily going to be perfect and not have any potential pitfalls. It’s been really great for The 19th to focus on the relationship side of republishing, as well as the technical side. Even if we aren’t necessarily able to be 100% certain of the raw number of unique visitors that we’re getting, as long as we have that relationship and can talk to these other publications about what’s resonating with their audiences, I think that we would have gotten something out of it.
Lytle: Were there any challenges that came up while building your republication and tracking system?
Blachman: An unforeseen challenge of ours is the impact that incorporating republishing technology into our website would have on our site speed. Because that happened the first time around, this time we’re trying to be super considerate of how an embedded pixel could potentially slow down a partner’s website.
Lytle: Can you explain why this tracking pixel was slowing down your site?
Blachman: When we embed our tracking pixel on someone else’s website, because they have republished a story of ours, we’re using our website to send data about page views and the republisher to Google Analytics. If all of a sudden that story that’s on another website starts getting a ton of traffic, we’re then sending a bunch of data all at the same time. That ends up really slowing down our website because that technology is incorporated into The 19th’s website itself.
Splitting it off from our website and basically having it operate as its own application protects against that, but we still have to be considerate of the impacts that could have on a partner’s website.
Lytle: Is there anything else you’d want other news organizations to know about when it comes to republication tracking?
Blachman: We’re always really concerned with a user’s privacy and our audience members’ privacy. It’s been important for us to make sure that we are never trying to — whether successfully or not — collect data from someone that might be a unique identifier and send that to Google Analytics. That’s been really important for us to just make sure that we’re following best practices and just getting information that’s going to help us understand our audience without ever jeopardizing anyone’s privacy.
Sign up for the Innovation in Focus Newsletter to get our articles, tips, guides and more in your inbox each month!
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.