“Actionable news”: A dull phrase, but one which should shape what we do

If you were presented with the following three news stories: The promotion of Newcastle United to the Premier League, the death of Raoul Moat after a week on the run, or a story which revealed which restaurants were Newcastle’s dirtiest – which would you expect to be the most viewed online this year?

In the case of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle website, ChronicleLive, it’s the latter of the three. Looking at the top stories for the Chronicle so far this year, the restaurants tale comfortably beats any one of the stories written about Newcastle United’s glorious end to the season or the police chase for Moat.

It’s worth pointing out at this point that collectively, the stories written in the week Moat was on the run will have generated more traffic than the single story on dirty restaurants, but none individually matched the restaurants story. Ditto the Newcastle United promotion.

In Manchester last month, the Manchester Evening News ran a supplement called ‘Race for a School Place‘ which documented how many children were applying for places at every high school in Greater Manchester, along with the number of places available. The data stories were among the top-performing in October on the M.E.N website, and for several days, were the top stories on the website.

The Birmingham Mail had run a similar project a month earlier, spreading the data across three days. The top line, that for every 10 children who apply for a grammar school place in the city, just one gets a place, contributed to a print sales rise on the day. The section online containing the data continues to drive traffic.

What do they all have in common? To me, they are all examples of ‘actionable’ news – a term I first heard just a week ago while at the Society of Editors Conference.

To be fair to Jodie Ginsberg, chief of the Reuters bureau in the UK and Ireland, she may have been using the phrase ‘actionable’ in a totally different sense, but I hope not. (You can hear Jodie’s panel session here)

Asked to describe a vision for where journalism is going, Ginsberg talked about the need for news to be useful in people’s lives. It’s not the number of stories we produce which will keep people coming back, Ginsberg said, but news which provides a context, which is connected and which relates to a community.

“Pure facts are not enough. They don’t tell a story, and don’t pay the way,” she said. “We must provide a service to our customers. News must be actionable.”

I see actionable news being right at the heart of the idea of data journalism. Information may well be freely available in a way we’ve never seen before, but that doesn’t mean the role of the storyteller has fallen by the wayside. As long as the writer who gets to grips with a spreadsheet of data is also plugged into the community they serve, and knows what they are interested in, then we’ve got actionable news.

In the case of the Chronicle, it used publicly-available data as the starting point: The Scores on the Doors website lists the rating out of five which councils award after environmental health inspections. The Chronicle then asked the council for copies of the reports from the worst performing ones. If the devil is in the detail, then the interest in this case was most certainly in the mouse droppings.

The readers could use that information to mark off which places they weren’t going to eat in again.

The Birmingham and Manchester examples were both collated using a number of techniques, including Freedom of Information requests. The Race for a School Place concept has both short-term and long-term actionable value for readers. For those trying to get their children into school for next September, it provides a chance to make contingency plans. For those looking into the following years for making that choice, it’s data which they can then put into action to increase their chances of getting that school place.

To me, both the Evening Chronicle’s restaurants story and the schools projects in Birmingham and Manchester demonstrate the value of knowing what readers want, and then delivering the information they can use from the tsunami of data available – and in some cases, going beyond the readily available data to get the stuff readers want and can use.

It shouldn’t be a revelation to journalists – after all, newsroom planners have certain data-rich days marked in every year, such as GCSE league tables day. But rather than be dictated to by a government planning calendar, journalists who can marry data access to issues which impact on people’s lives can provide make their work, and the titles they work for, more relevant to an audience than ever before.

Which is probably why The Sunday Times’ University guide was so heavily promoted from behind a paywall.

One editor recently described the concept of data journalism as ‘news you can use gone right,’ referring to the 1980s buzz phrase which generally resulted in a more prominent slot for the chemists rota.

But it’s probably more simple than that. Maria McGeoghan, editor of the Manchester Evening News, was on the same panel as Ginsberg. She put down the future success of newspapers as being able to continue providing a product which people will learn something from. That’s data journalism in a nutshell: Telling people something they didn’t know, which they will feel better for knowing, and can use to make a difference.

Actionable journalism might sound a daft ‘oh here we go again’ phrase – but journalists ignore it at their peril.

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