Audience data can secure journalism’s future. Or it can be ridiculed

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Twitter was abuzz late last week with folk sharing a link to an article written by a former editor of the New Atlantic in which he concluded that journalism was essentially being killed by audience data.

As entertaining as it might have been, and judging by the volume of Tweets it got it clearly captured a certain mood, it’s also a thoroughly dangerous view of the world which, if adopted, actually takes away the very tool which has the ability to make journalism stronger in the future.

Chris Moran, who has evangelised the Guardian’s transformation into an organisation which pays attention to audience data and has grown and developed as a result of doing so, has written a superb response which covers many areas.

Moran is bang on the money when he says it’s not enough to just have audience data – you need to have the culture which uses it correctly. If you are a journalist who thinks journalism is being harmed by audience data, then it’s a safe bet that either you, or your newsroom, is using it the wrong way.

Here’s why.

It’s not what you know, but what you do with it

Journalism’s online financial model is pretty much driven by the number of ads on a page. So the logic does follow that the more page views you generate, the more money you earn.

But the sustainability of driving page views – which in itself is no bad thing, despite the tut-tutting you’ll often here about such pursuits – will be determined by how the reader feels once they’ve experienced your brand.

Trick a reader into a story which isn’t reflected by the headline, make it too hard to get to the content, push too many ads at them and they won’t come back.

If, on the other hand, you look at the audience data and ask yourself which metrics tell you the reader is satisfied by what they’re getting from you, and where you can improve, you’re actually putting the reader at the heart of what you do – and that’s the most important step we can take to support journalism in the future.

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Do we need to talk about Greggs again? Really?

Last week, a Cardiff-based academic shared with Twitter a screengrab he had assembled while apparently preparing for some teaching.

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He clearly likes a pasty more than most, given his desire to go into the archive of a website and search for Greggs in it. The upshot – and screenshot, for that matter – was the usual critique of digital regional journalism: It’s not as good as it used to be, it’s not real journalism, it’s national, not local, it’s PR in disguise, it’s advertising not marked up as such. And so on.

For a Twitter post which claims to lament the over-promotion of Greggs, it’s a shame Andy Williams chose to essentially reheat a similar argument about Greggs which emerged in Press Gazette a few weeks ago.

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The Letters Page where seagulls dare

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I think I might be developing a bit of an obsession for the letters pages of local newspapers.

Or maybe I was just surprised to see a letter in the Tindle-owned Cornish Times this week which had been written so as to apparently be from a seagull.

Like dog poo and bin collections, the problems caused by seagulls are popular fodder for letters pages (which in turn serve as a timely reminder of what really matters to readers).

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When press coverage of court becomes part of the punishment itself

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Every now and again, I read an article from which I conclude that the journalist writing it will never get repeat such sentences in copy again.

This week, Lincolnshire Live, the website of Trinity Mirror’s titles in Lincolnshire, carried perhaps the most remarkable court case I’ve read. Ever.

Warning: It’s not for the squeamish:

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In local journalism, sometimes some things never change

One of the many lessons I learnt from wise editors was that you could tell the strength of a newspaper by the strength of its letters page.

The logic, I guess, is simple: If people care enough about what they’ve read to write in and have their say, you’re probably doing something right. I suspect it is also a reason why those mass send-out charity appeal letters were so frowned upon by some editors I’ve worked with.

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Data journalism, robots … and predictions on where we go from here

 

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At Google’s latest Digital News Initiative conference, held in Amsterdam last week, there were plenty of ideas being discussed around what the future of news looked like.

The DNI involves Google investing millions of pounds in projects put forward by media organisations large and small from across Europe, which could help shape the future of the media and support the development of journalism in the years to come.

Britain’s Press Association was one of the biggest winners this time, securing over 700,000 Euros to fund a new news service which will generate 30,000 local news stories a month sourced from data … and written by ‘robots’.

A team of five journalists will spot stories in data sets and then use artificial intelligence to create potentially hundreds of versions for different locations – hence the notion of robots.

AI-powered (Artifical Intelligence) journalism has been bubbling for a number of years. In America, Chicago Tribune publisher Tronc plans to use AI to auto-generate up to 2,000 videos a day to support stories, news agency AP has increased its volume of earnings reports from business announcements by 10-fold using AI (with the firm saying there are fewer errors than when humans did them)and the same company is now using AI to write minor baseball league reports.

At the Washington Post, ‘robots’ are deployed to write results of some elections, and also for sport. At the LA Times, a bot automatically sends out alerts whenever an earthquake is recorded – an inadvertently alarmed people about an earthquake predication for 2025 after a bug entered the system which powered the data the LA Times relies on.

So are we at a tipping point where technology now replaces reporters in newsrooms up and down the UK? I don’t think so – especially if we embrace their potential. Here’s why:

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Greggs opening drive thrus and the perception problem caused by unbundled content

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Earlier this week, British Press trade website Press Gazette ran an article suggesting Trinity Mirror was forcing regional newsrooms to write clickbait.

Its evidence came in the form of a anonymous tip-off apparently from a journalist who said colleagues were ‘appalled’ at a ‘three-line whip’ to write an article which said Greggs – the bakers – had no plans to open a drive thru restaurant near them.

The article had appeared on multiple websites around the country, localised. Some newsrooms had pushed the story on social media, others hadn’t. The smell of a story guaranteed to go to the top of Press Gazette’s ‘most read’ was presumably as alluring as a steak bake when hungover for the team at UKPG. It certainly hooks readers in the same way that sausage roll smell does for many at lunchtime at Greggs.

The premise of the story, the three-line whip, is wrong. No such three-line whip exists. Greggs has opened a drive-thru in Greater Manchester, and as such titles around there published a story. Another title then ran a story about the fact Greggs was opening a drive-thru away from their area because they assumed local people (who probably go to Greggs or at least have a view on whether they’d go to a Greggs drive-thru) would be interested. They were.

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