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Why The Future of Data Journalism Is… Less Data

March 4, 2015 | By Matt Crenshaw, VP of Product Marketing, Outbrain

photo credit:  r2hox

“Data is the new oil.” That is the modern maxim across a host of industries. From shopping to shipping, businesses are being urged to gain better insight and improve performance by delving into their underlying numbers.

News media are no different. In the last couple of years, journalists have been encouraged to adopt analytics software as part of their daily editorial efforts. Now it is common to find newsroom editors checking their page views, time-spent metrics and social referrals on a minute-by-minute basis.

This kind of data used to be kept under lock and key, used only by website technical administrators and advertising auditors while journalists gave two hoots. Now, with always-on dashboards from tools like ChartBeat, Parse.ly and Outbrain’s own Visual Revenue in the hands of editors, content producers are becoming skilled numerical interpreters. The industry has come a long way. However, it’s time to go to the next level.

Modern journalists are constantly being told which new skills they have to learn—a dizzying array of video production, coding, even drone-flying. Those who also up-skill sufficiently to become their newsroom’s virtual data analyst can manufacture higher user engagement for their employer. After all, when particular stories cause traffic to spike, writing more of the same is a quick win.

But more data doesn’t necessarily produce better journalism. The danger with the growing role of audience numbers in publisher strategy is the risk of over-reliance, creating a belief that every reader data point should be responded to with an editorial outcome: quantity and category of story over quality and ambition.

The Data Endoskeleton

The first wave of newsroom analytics has served its purpose (we now know that stories about kittens and celebrities trend well, for example). What the professionals now need is a support system that does not encourage them to make snap decisions based on reams of numbers, but one which is more in harmony with the craft of editorship, playing a softer and more symbiotic role as editors’ sidekick, not their auditor.

Just think of the way Apple’s Siri hides from users so much of the underlying data that rival services like to bombard them with. When you ask Siri a question, it returns not unlimited options but fewer, more directed opportunities.

In the same way, in the next wave of publishing analytics, software would suggest publication improvements after noting not just the raw, blunt performance of site content but also the priorities and goals of conscious managing staff.

In the future, editors should be able to pre-populate their software with their own, qualified goals and ambitions, helping tailor system recommendations that are in line with publications’ true missions.

By allowing editors to make smarter decisions that are based on their own instincts, not just being a slave to the spreadsheet, the industry can keep readers coming back and rediscover a lost metric: lifetime value.

You can already see the beginnings of this new philosophy being applied. Despite often being accused of publishing low-brow click-fodder, BuzzFeed looks at engagement and virality in a whole new way. Publishing purely to the numbers could have prompted it to publish even more cat slideshows and quizzes. However selective insight led it to also make risky bets, such as its commitment to long-form journalism, which have ended up surprising success stories.

Publishers who are excitedly following the data trail to clear traffic growth should pause to reclaim their own part in the process. In a world becoming familiar with the concept of automated “robo-journalism,” I envision the future of journalism not as this replacement of flesh with circuitry, but as an endoskeleton—a perfect combination of the best qualities of each.

MattCrenshawMatt Crenshaw is the Vice President of Product Marketing, Engage at Outbrain. Matt is responsible for setting the product vision and delivering solutions to publishers that build their audience relationships and grow their revenues.


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