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Writing to the Data? The Complex Relationship Between Stories and Reactions

July 13, 2015 | By John LoGioco, Executive Vice President—Outbrain

The Washington Post and New York Times, two of the most respected brands in journalism, recently announced they will share some data with their journalists. The mere fact that this announcement made news alludes to how fledgling this practice is in newsrooms around the world. Despite the growing use of data to inform ever-more business decisions, there has been hesitation to leverage data on the editorial front for a number of reasons.

  1. Writing to the Data – Sort of like the axiom “teaching to the test” in education, it’s understandable why a newsroom might resist the widespread practice of making analytics part of daily life, as it might distract journalists from their editorial mission and lead to the production of lowest-common-denominator content.
  2. Pay-for-Performance – Even further down the path of being slave to the data, this one can be a morale-killer: The line between sharing data with journalists and rewarding performance (however that might be defined) can be too blurred for comfort for some publications and a morale-buster for staff.
  3. Ambiguity Over Which Metrics Are Even Helpful – This is not a small issue. Depending on the publisher’s editorial mission and goals, simply measuring shares or page views might do very little to illuminate the newsroom on what resonates with audiences – even if it’s of interest to the business teams.

All of the above has understandably tempered newsroom’s excitement over integrating data analyses into the daily workflow, even as more journalists become fluent in the discipline. Journalists are critical thinkers. They investigate and analyze in the routine execution of their work. A little bit of data is not going to intimidate them.

But above all else, journalists are storytellers. For a living. At a certain point, they live in service to the story as much as they do to their audience. Data, in that case, is only helpful insofar as it can help a journalist tell the next story. And the truth is, journalists routinely employ data of this nature in the newsroom, and have for some time – it just hasn’t always been of the quantitative sort.

Think of the five most prevalent stories in the news right now. How many of them are “breaking” stories and how many of them are ongoing coverage and commentary of stories several days old? Every major news story generates plethora of possible follow-up stories, each of which can go down any number of paths.

In addition to chasing down those paths and lining up additional sources, journalists also have the trajectory of audience reaction to guide them. And quite often, they use it.

We’re seeing this dynamic play out now in the coverage of the Charleston shooting, as that story has now shifted to a debate over the removal of the Confederate flag from government buildings in South Carolina. In the wake of such a horrible tragedy, was this the logical follow-up story? As the conversation accelerated on social channels (and yes, the Comments section of news sites), audiences answered that question loudly and clearly.

These days, news stories are routinely developed and told through this feedback cycle.  But even in this context, an aforementioned tension arises: How much is journalism merely “following the data” versus shaping it? How much of both should it strive for? The resulting balance probably looks an awful lot like the appropriate balance between cognizance of the “hard numbers” and sticking to journalist instincts.

In which case, more publishers should encourage (but not force) their journalists to investigate all the data, both qualitative and quantitative, at their disposal so as not to rule out a potentially powerful story. None of that can happen unless the data is made available to them first.

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