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.