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.

Choose your mission … and measure yourself

When people bemoan ‘chasing clicks,’ they are often dodging a more obvious point: What is the mission of the newsroom? As mentioned above, newsrooms which just chase page views with no thought to building the value of the brand in the mind of the reader won’t have a very long future.

At the company I work for, Trinity Mirror, we regularly hear people talking about ‘dumbing down’, ‘chasing clicks’ and ‘not doing real journalism.’ Those doing the talking rarely know the full mix of metrics we actually use – local audience reach, active engaged time on page, bounce rate, pages per visit, volume of brand-loyal users to name but five – alongside the all-important page view.

Tools like Chartbeat – scorned in the New Atlantic critique – can be viewed as some sort of numerical dictator of journalism, always telling you that you could have done better. Or, and more likely, it should be seen as a way to, instantly, see how the most important people are responding to your work. The most important person being the reader. And from that, we should always be learning.

Personal mission is also important here

Every journalist has their own reason for coming into journalism. But few will have success if people don’t read, watch or listen to what they do. Even the publicly-funded BBC has to pay attention to audience numbers to justify that ongoing licence fee.

Whether we like it or not, digital has brought with it an instant unbundling of content so that every article, video etc stands or falls on its own merits.

Digital journalism also enables new rivals at every turn. How should professional journalists respond to that? By making sure readers know they get the best from them.

If your mission is to write great features, then use the audience data to work out how to get it to an audience which appreciates it. If it’s to uncover wrongdoing at the highest level, then make sure when you speak truth to power, you do so with an engaged, audience behind you.

Audience data shows us what people want, and what they don’t. It shows us what they respond to, and the different ways they respond to it.

It might not always give you the answers that you want, but it’ll always represent the most important people (the readers) in an accurate way.

PS: Audience data is nothing new

There’s this romantic notion in journalism that until the advent of the internet, we just wrote what was important to the journalistic mission, and people read it. Which is rubbish.

Responding to what newsrooms thought readers wanted is only different now because we know what readers want, rather than relying on very limited sources of data, which could be interpreted in many ways.

Did Monday’s paper sell because a) Rovers had won at the weekend, b) there was a great Sunday-for-Monday splash in the bag, c) the picture spread from the Oxdown Annual August festival or d) because it was reasonably warm out and people wanted to paper to read while eating their lunch outside the cathedral? Answer: It was probably a little bit of all of the above.

The idea that we used to just create great newspapers based on what was core to our journalistic mission is to forget that part of what we felt made a great newspaper was the fact it sold better than last week’s paper.

We now know what readers want to read. We have all the data at our fingertips. Our challenge is how we use that data to ensure what we believe to be important gets the audience it deserves.

Important journalism is too important not to be read.  Audience data is our most valuable asset in giving important journalism a viable future. 

PS 2: And finally…

By the way, I found the the article into the New Atlantic fascinating, but I didn’t conclude the problem was installing Chartbeat in the newsroom. The problem was the author felt let down by a change of direction by the owner.

I suspect he won’t be the first person to feel that his employer has changed the direction of a business and no longer feels part of it, and won’t be the last either. But blaming audience data for the problems is to miss diagnose the root cause of the problem.

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