Turning journalism from an art into a science … and then back again

WARNING: Long read! Summary as follows: Journalism has always been about gut instinct and hunches. Those who did best were those who guessed what audiences wanted. Digital audience data, however, means that journalism is much a science as an art now

Journalism: Craft, trade or profession? It’s a debate which comes around periodically, normally when the merits of user generated content are being considered. I’d like to throw in a fourth option.

Journalism, particularly regional journalism, actually needs to become a science. And, as a result of the rise of digital journalism, it will do.

In short, that means the end of the journalist’s hunch on what makes a good story, replaced with evidential proof of what makes a good story in the eyes of the audience.

For 150 years newspapers have been assembled based on what journalists assume will sell newspapers. That assumption is often based on the closest thing newspaper newsrooms had to audience data – print sales reports.

We all know that readers, when polled in research, claim their is too much crime reported in the paper. But we also know that nothing shifts newspapers more than a big crime story. How newsrooms have interpreted that data is where the hunch has come in. Are readers really complaining about too much crime, or just the wrong sort of crime? Do they like gangsters but not run-of-the-mill crime? I’ve read of extreme examples of crime being banned from front pages as a result.

Those hunches, those gut instincts, which all journalists making story decisions have, are based on experience. Experiences based on talking to real people. Experiences of the pat-on-the-back from the editor on a great story well done. Experience of a smile from newspaper sales.

It’s now time to reboot that gut instinct, and turn it into a gut instinct which is driven by scientific analysis of audience data. I’ve discussed this with a number of people over the last few months, and on one level it’s a scary thought. The most successful people in print journalism have been those who can tap into a sense of what drives readers to their brands, often with very little real data to hand to back up their hunch or argument. It’s a skill, a talent, an art.

Now, however, it’s possible to work out how to build an audience really easily. It doesn’t take years of practice in a newsroom, it just takes access to WordPress and Google Analytics.

Knowing your audience

Access to numbers is one thing. What you do with them is quite another. And this is where there’s a huge opportunity for regional journalism at this moment.

The growth of mobile consumption of content offers news brands – particularly regional news brands – the chance to connect with people in their area who would perhaps never dream of buying their newspaper. That’s not a slur on the quality of journalism, just a sign of changing habits.

Knowing what they want to read is one thing. Doing something with that data is quite another. And doing something with that data while keeping your target audience in mind is perhaps the biggest challenge.

It would be very easy, for example, for the Huddersfield Examiner, a paper firmly connected to its community and with a strong, rapidly growing website to boot, to double its digital audience by writing about nothing but UFOs.  The problem, however, comes when the advertising department report they’ve run out of digital inventory to sell because all that extra traffic is from overseas. Big in Texas, not to big in Huddersfield isn’t a compelling sales story.

In one respect, that makes the frequently quoted audience figures a bit of a distraction for the regional press. They tell a very positive story – more readers than ever before – but within newsrooms, the question has to be: What are the local users doing?

Over time, a new gut instinct emerges from newsdesks and reporters.

A new news agenda

An obvious example of this is traffic and travel content. In print, particularly overnight publications, a three-car pile up on the motorway isn’t really ‘news.’ It’s old and out of date when it makes it into print, and even the ‘get five pars on the web’ approach when the story appears on the police voicebank isn’t good enough.

At the Manchester Evening News – which has successfully added an extra 13 million pages views a month over the last six months by adopting this sort of approach –  word of a three-car pile-up on the M60 instantly leads to a snap on the website, an update on social media and calls for more information.

Just as murders sell newspapers, details of traffic accidents shift page views, if done right. Likewise, it would have been unimaginable six years ago for the Birmingham Mail to be competing with BBC Radio WM to be first to the lists of all the schools closed when it snows. Yet whenever a flake falls in the Midlands, the Mail is now all over that side of the story straight away.

Two or three stories in a similar vein soon become a trend in newsrooms; they soon become the new gut instincts for journalists. It’s how newsrooms respond to that data which is so important now.

Journalism is still an art

For me, journalism is an art, even when data is applied. I’ve been told by some people that what I’m describing is painting by numbers journalism, but I think that’s way off the mark. Having the data is one thing, knowing how to make sure you stand out with the popular content is quite another.

I know of a website which prides itself of being first on the scene to any crash in its area, getting pictures of the sort most journalists wouldn’t dream of using. And that’s where the art comes in. It’s easy to draw a reader in once, it’s much harder to become the place they just think to turn every day.

The science is the data, the art is the content created from that data. And the data throws up some challenging questions. Columnists, generally, don’t work online – it doesn’t matter whether you’re the face of a local brand or a national columnist, if you’re not engaging with an audience online, you can’t expect people to read your content.

Many people have read about ‘Newsroom 3.1’ – the new digital newsroom project being created in Newcastle and Teesside at the company I work for, Trinity Mirror. As part of the team which has helped shape that newsroom, I’ve seen how important it is that we’re led by data when working out what to focus on. The new newsroom has a simple purpose: To create the content which drives the page views the brands require to be hugely successful in the future.

Those page views won’t be achieved if the content people find on websites doesn’t make them want to come back. That ‘urgh’ feeling when you search for something in Google and stumble across a website built to get your click in search rather than engage you and satisfy you is key here. Regional news brands have a strong history of building up  loyalty, but in a very different age, an age with less competition.

Loyalty is built in the future by taking the data and applying the art of journalism in a way which respects what the audience data is telling us. Some websites I work with now see greater audience spikes to football reports which are called ‘Five things we learned’ rather than a traditional match report.

There will, of course, always be content which can’t drive the sort of audiences an Arsenal Football Club transfer rumour can, and analysing the data doesn’t mean a race to the top (or bottom, depending on your views). It’s about believing the instant data in front of you.

How to make it work

Job number one is to decide what audience you want and how you want them to behave. For a regional news brand, that generally means local, and frequently returning.

Job number two is then to look specifically at what that audience is interested in. At Trinity Mirror, we use Omniture to find out what specific audiences are interested in, while Chartbeat also provides instant data on who is viewing what and where they move to next.

But applying the science to journalism can be as simple as going into Google Analytics and setting your blog up with that. Or playing around on Google Trends with terms to find out what variant is most popular, and when it is most popular. Facebook and Twitter provide a multitude of data to give you a flavour of the content people are most interested in.

Job number three is to then work out the best way to engage people with that content to stand out. If you believe it’s crucial to what you do to cover council, then cover them live. That might be a small audience, but it’s an engaged audience. If you believe in the power of your columnists, get them writing frequently online, not just once a week for print.

Respecting the audience

And in the case of newsrooms with a newspaper in them too, job number four becomes using that digital data to inform print decisions. If something local is hugely popular online, it’s a safe bet it will be in print too. The Birmingham Mail, for example, has seen strong print sales lifts by giving a more prominent show to stories which flew online more than expected, as did the Daily Post in North Wales last year.

This approach unlocks new sorts of content – the popularity of picture galleries, for example, or quizzes, or listicles. Easy to deride for some as ‘not real journalism’ but isn’t the challenge to ensure our journalism engages? Whenever you hear the phrase ‘it’s how it’s always been done’ or ‘We’ve always done this,’ there will be data on hand to determine whether it’s the right or wrong thing to do. Likewise when you hear that something which doesn’t attract readers is being done ‘for the brand’, the data should be used to ensure the thing which is so important for the brand actually attracts readers, otherwise how much good is it doing the brand?

Tesco wouldn’t fill its shop with things people didn’t want, but nor does it only fill its shop with the ten things people are most likely to buy. The same balance applies to regional digital journalism … and it’s the ability to read and interpret the new data which becomes the magic.

Journalism as a science is about making big decisions – such as the way football is covered or how a columnist works online – and small decisions, based on data. In Newcastle this week, I attended a news conference where the words being used in internal site searches resulted in more frequent updating of a court case than had otherwise been intended. It’s about seeing what the audience wants, and giving them more of it.

The new newsrooms in Newcastle and Teesside are ‘audience first’ newsrooms more than anything else. Forget the platforms and focus on the audience through the data they provide just by turning up on the website, or using the web in general. Which is why one of the new roles is that of planning analyst, someone who lives and breathes audience data which editors can then use to make sure we’re creating the right content at the right times, to the standard users expect.

Regional journalism has long been an art – the art of engaging readers. It’s now also a science, and the most successful brands in the future will the ones who respect the science and use it to inform and improve the art. Respecting the data is respecting the audience.



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