As Facebook’s ‘fake news’ shows, the brightest future for news involves blending data insight and gut instinct

biff chip and craig
In the learn-to-read book, Craig, Biff and Chip found out they’d saved Pudding Wood by reading about it in the newspaper. How do we make sure online we’re the place to turn to for such news?

Facebook came under fire from the news industry this week for automating the trending news widget – until now, it had been a process which allowed for human intervention.

The problem with automation, it turns out, is that it allows fake news in. Facebook, of course, had to defend itself against claims of potential bias in the trending box when it did allow journalists employed by the social network giant to decide what went where.

For journalists getting to grips with the digital age, the dilemma facing Facebook will have a familiar ring to it. Do you go with what the audience tells you they want through their actions (Facebook talks about signals, newsrooms talk about audience data), or do you go with what your instinct as journalist tells you?

The answer, as with many things, is surely taking the best of both. Journalism’s success – and especially regional journalism’s success – is now inextricably linked with popularity amongst readers. That doesn’t necessarily mean biggest audience is always best, but every news organisation is seeking the right size of the right audience to sustain itself into the future.

That right audience may be just one of scale, as that drives a certain level of revenue on the back of it. Or it might be a smaller audience which values the content enough to pay for it, or register for it. Or, as is likely the case for many regional publishers, the right audience is surely a primarily local audience of a size no other news organisation can hold a candle to.

So what’s the best way to reach that audience? Facebook’s success is down to a combination of great product – giving people something useful – and superb relevance of what it serves up. Both aspects are built, refined and refined again using the ‘signals’ users send in the form of audience data.

Over the summer, the pursuit of the right size of local audience has been under the microscope after criticism from journalists who have recently left the organisation I work for, Trinity Mirror. I believe debate about what we do and the way we do it is healthy – we expect the right to scrutinise others, so we should expect to be scrutinised ourselves – so long as it’s a constructive debate rooted in fact, rather than personal opinion.

The editor of trade website Press Gazette, Dominic Ponsford, attempted to sum up the debate like this:

“I’ve always felt that the best journalists base their work on a gut instinct for what readers are interested in and what is important. A better word than arrogance might be a sense of duty – not to the bottom line, but to your readers and the title you are proud to represent.”

A bit like the Facebook furore this week, I find it frustrating that audience data and gut instinct are being treated as mutually exclusive. Surely, gut instinct is formed over time and based on personal experiences as well as the inherent beliefs of newsrooms.

I imagine Facebook will get to a place when it inserts an element of manual overview into its automation of trending topics, maybe along the lines of a fact-checking unit as proposed on Poynter this week. It’s important, too, that newsrooms get the right balance of audience data and gut instinct if they are to truly connect with readers.

Audience data is not just a series of numbers, it’s the audience – the readers Ponsford talks about – telling us what they are reading and to a large extent how they are reacting to it. Are they sharing it? Are they staying with it for long? Are they commenting on it? Are they going on to another story?

And if the audience doesn’t respond to something that gut instinct tells us is important, the solution shouldn’t be to denounce audience data – still dismissively referred in the debate as ‘counting clicks’ – but to find a way to connect the content guy instinct tells us we have a ‘duty’ to report on to the people we feel we have the ‘duty’ to.

gut instinct

The two-way flow of information and interpretation is what will help newsrooms connect with audiences in a way which makes those newsrooms relevant to the readers they need to sustain journalism into the future. Gut instinct should surely be open to challenge by fact-based data, and the fact-based data open to questioning from what we believe to be true from what we know in the real world.

Audience data also helps overcome other challenges newsrooms face. The National Union of Journalists recently told a parliamentary working party on social mobility that journalism was an increasingly remote profession for a variety of reasons. It cited low pay, internships and an industry over-reliance on ‘old school tie’ networks. The gradual move over the years to the presumption that journalism must be a graduate-only profession is perhaps a greater factor than all those listed by the NUJ.

And while the NUJ’s concerns need to be looked at, audience data already provides the savvy editor with the ability to understand what a wider cross-section of local readers are interested in.

A report from Harvard last week suggested mobile internet will create a ‘second-class digital citizenship’ who are less likely to spend time online looking at news due to data costs, and the time they spend online is more likely to be with entertainments and sports than news.

In the UK, I think the picture is a little different. Looking at demographic data, it’s clear a broader cross-section of people are reading local news sites as a result of mobile consumption, probably due to the presence of all-you-can-eat data deals and smart accessing of wifi. But the challenge of getting attention is as acute as the Harvard report claims.

Does audience data therefore help understand what appeals to audiences we need to reach to be relevant? I think so. Does it help newsrooms overcome perhaps assumptions on what people want which are out of step with the communities we seek to serve? I think so. Does audience data work best when it is challenged and interrogated and interpreted by journalists who understand that data is essentially the reporting of human behaviour? I think so.

For once, journalists should strive to have their cake and eat it. Consistently seeing audience data as a challenge to journalism, rather than an aid to a successful future when used in context, is a sure-fire way to guarantee irrelevance.


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