The days of publishers and journalists being ignorant of data are long gone with the pendulum swinging firmly in the other direction, particularly for the new generations entering the business.
Brian Morrissey, president and editor-in-chief at media industry publication Digiday, has a front row seat to the action. He says: “Now the risk is reporters are too data focused, chasing likes and shares and clicks rather than getting the story right – and focusing on what will build differentiated brands. This is mostly the fault of leadership. There's an entire generation of ‘content producers’ churning out the 100th hot take on some viral idiocy.”
While data may suggest publishers post the latest video du jour, Morrissey prefers to steer clear of chasing “cheap pageviews”. He says: “That won't do much for our goal of being the leading authority in media and marketing globally. Of course, we look at what's resonating with our audience, but the data that's most important to us is that which leads to direct connections and subscriptions.”
Subscriptions are also a top priority for Tom Betts, chief data officer at the Financial Times, who has been analysing and actioning data for the publisher for more than eight years. He says: “In some of our earliest work, we managed to increase our subscription growth by 20 per cent year-on-year.”
By being smarter about who the publisher targeted and how they did it, Betts and his more than 20-strong team have reached the point where 70 per cent of the Financial Times’ readership is now paying for a digital product.
“We have built a profitable digital subscription business which is notoriously hard to pull off in the news media sector,” he notes. “If you were to ask our chief executive, he would tell you that data has been one of the biggest catalysts of our digital growth.”
Back over at Digiday, Morrissey and his team look to Google Analytics as well as data from social and email providers as well as third parties when it comes to analysing their performance but he’s quick to point out it’s about more than traffic. He says: “The key is in interpreting the data against your long-term goal. For us, that's direct connections. We focus a lot of getting to know more information about our audience and their areas of interest. That's what builds long-term value of the brand.”
Data can play another role entirely for journalists such as Amanda Farnsworth, editor, visual journalism, at BBC News. Farnsworth is a data journalist which essentially means she takes large data sets and explores them with software tools to find and visualise stories. Originally called Computer Assisted Reporting or CAR, data journalism has been around for many years, however, in the last five to 10 years, the practice has become more acknowledged and widespread.
The key challenge for data journalists is to take pieces of information such as spreadsheets that may seem indigestible to most people and turn them into something that is easily understood.
Farnsworth and her team’s work with data spans from the fun – in 2016 she was involved with the BBC’s online quiz Olympic Body Match which used complex statistical techniques and the database of 10,000 athletes to match everyday people to the body types of Olympians – to much more serious projects such as investigating Britain’s National Health System. Farnsworth is currently embarking on a major project that tracks wait times for hospital accident and emergency departments, cancer treatment and routine operations such as hip and knee replacements.
“That involves a huge amount of data from all the hospital trusts across Britain,” said Farnsworth. The team is also working on a global data project that looks at life expectancy across the globe and how that has shifted in the last five years.
With the amount of data being created and collected around the globe, Farnsworth sees the practice of data journalism as being vital.
“It's important for journalists to realise we are living in this data era,” she says. “What does that mean for journalism? What does that mean for society? How do we explore those data sets and explain to people what data is being collected? What are the rights of people around the data that is used by companies and, indeed, by journalists?”
It may sound like a specialist skillset but Farnsworth says it can be taught. A basic understanding of math helps in addition to traditional journalism traits. She says: “Being interested in what people say, wanting to find things out – all the normal journalistic skills and methods – are applicable to data journalism as well.”
For publishers such as Digiday, data journalism is currently out of reach. Morrissey says: “We have people who use data in their reporting but I don't know that it's a stand alone discipline, at least within a fairly small organisation such as ours. We have 22 people on editorial so I can't imagine putting resources against such a specific thing.”
The publishing saviour?
With Australian and international publishers facing continually difficult times, data presents an opportunity. It’s certainly working for the Financial Times although Morrissey warns against viewing data as the silver bullet.
“Data is not the saviour. Video is not the saviour. Paywalls are not the saviour. The only thing that will be is brand,” he says. “I look at being a publisher these days like being in a band. It used to be simple for bands. They'd get discovered, cut an album, go on tour, repeat. It was clean. Same for publishing. Nowadays a band has to do all that but also do merchandising, play corporate gigs, have side hustles. Publishers have to work harder to make money. That can be putting on events, developing commerce businesses, running an ad agency, etcetera.”
Betts agrees that data is not the answer to publishers woes. Instead, he says strategy must come first and be backed by data.
“It's very easy to see data as a challenge or an untapped opportunity. But, at the end of the day, it really reinforces your strategy. If your strategy is coherent, widely shared across the organisation, people believe in it and it unifies the company, then data is enormously helpful in driving growth,” says Betts.