Like it or not, data’s not leaving the newsroom any time soon.
Debating on its merits is therefore a bit like debating whether we should be using computers: that ship sailed so long ago it’s already reached port.
So data’s here to stay, but how it fits into the newsroom is something else.
Typically, the two phrases we hear the most to describe this are ‘data driven’ and ‘data informed’. And, of those two, it’s the latter one which seems to be the more comfortable fit.
→ Data driven: Decision making process is reliant almost entirely upon data
→ Data informed: Data is part of decision making process
The general consensus seems to be that newsrooms feel more comfortable with being ‘informed’ rather than ‘driven’ by data. It’s not hard to see why: being ‘driven’ implies a dependence on data that we’ve seen countless editors balk at. A ‘data informed’ approach thus seems more inclusive, less mandated and less of a threat to the workflow we are all so used to – which, in many cases, is the anchor in the fast moving sea of the newsroom itself.
The problem with both of these approaches is that data isn’t omnipotent. It’s not binary. The way newsrooms should integrate data is as complex as the data sets themselves, which may be why many newsrooms don’t quite get to see the potential – and ease – data can offer.
What we’ve seen is the result of newsrooms being expected to incorporate data without support for how that can best be done.
There’s a need to start viewing how the newsroom uses data the other way around: how can data best serve the newsroom? The missing factor so far has been this: consultation.
A metaphor to help understand the problems of incorporating data into newsrooms:
Think about other things which are an intrinsic part of the newsroom. Desks, or coffee machines, or Slack. All of these things are essential to how we work, but they’re so ingrained that actually we don’t tend to think much about them.
But consider this for a moment: they’re indispensable only when they inhabit a form which fits.
There’s probably a coffee machine in your newsroom.
If it serves crappy coffee, you’ll endure it. Maybe. But it’s more probable you’ll come in clutching a cup of something from that coffee place across the street.
If it requires a three month training course to understand how to use it, and ten minutes to make a coffee, you might use it. But time’s tight in the bullpen. That place across the road still looks pretty good.
But, if it’s easy to use and serves a decent brew, chances are you’ll be happy to wander to the other end of the office, press the single button and be back at your desk to check the latest Slack notifications before you can even finish spelling your name for the barista over the road.
But make no mistake: it’s not the coffee machine that’s the end game here. No, no, no. The machine is the delivery system. It’s the hot caffeinated beverage that’s the point. The best delivery systems are as much about understanding the environment in which they’re to be placed, as they are the functionality of that device.
Ultimately, you see, most of us don’t give a shit about the machine. We just want the coffee.
That’s where we’re at with data. We need data delivered to us in the best, most efficient way possible, and to do this we need to get back to why it’s needed in the first place.
Data in use, now
Most of the conversations we’ve had with newsrooms lately show us that the majority see themselves as being ‘data informed’ rather than ‘data driven’.
When asked to score on a scale of one to ten how comfortable their newsroom was with data, there was a definite skew towards the higher end of the scale.
But, interestingly, when asked how often they used data as part of their decision making process or as part of their workflow, the responses registered much further down.
People are comfortable with the idea in theory, but in practice they either don’t, won’t or can’t integrate data into their general workflow.
The reason for this is somewhat backward. Newsrooms use tools that are available to them. Because these tools are not typically created and iterated to respond to the actual needs and behaviours of the newsroom, they can hope to do no more than be a ‘best fit’. Where the fit is awkward, there’s often a threshold of usability. Where specific skills are required to extract meaning from that data, the obstacle to use is large – and the results may not be all that insightful.
We bring this up because how newsrooms use data is often a direct result of what their relationship with it has been up to this point – and that experience hasn’t always necessarily been a productive one.
It’s why – as our suspicions were confirmed by those we chatted to here – that data is primarily used as a reporting or post-publication tool.
What’s data being used for, anyway?
When we’ve had opportunities to discuss this with clients and contemporaries over the last few months, overwhelmingly the feedback has been that data – metrics – are mostly closely associated with post-publication analysis. They’re closely linked to results. To tracking.
That’s hardly a surprise: it’s how they were conceived and it’s what the bulk of metrics are designed to do.
But, by placing analytics in a toolbox for post-publication you’re immediately categorising them as an appendage – as if studying your output is something that’s optional. A pat on the back or a kick up the arse in binary code, perhaps.
Our view is different – and it’s not because we have a solution (although we do, obviously). No, we think that while data is invaluable to check progress and success, this isn’t just something that should be used to tally how much engagement an article gets, plotted on a spreadsheet and forgotten about. We think of data in the newsroom as a living, organic resource, something which should be available to one and all at all stages of the process.
Data might be used to research topics and content ideas, to ascertain the best channel and timing for an article. To optimise a headline. And yes, it can obviously be used to analyse performance post-publication too. It just needs to be made available to do so.
It’s why we struggle with both of these terms: we should no more be relying solely on data and expecting it to miraculously guide us as we should be using it like a toolbox, which we’re able to get out of the cupboard when we feel like it.
When newsrooms who are reporting success mention an analytics package or an approach as being part of a solution or reason for that success, it’s easy to think that that’s the magic bullet. Of course, it’s all part of it, but there’s a danger that we’re overlooking the fundamental reason for it.
You see, where data – be it metrics, analytics, content discovery systems or ways to optimise or distribute – is used well, the reason for that is simply that there’s been a mindset and cultural change. Those newsrooms have committed to include data into their workflows and processes. It’s formed part of a cultural shift, where data is just as a part of the newsroom as pens or paper or telephones.
Data can do a lot. But if you’re ‘driven’ by it, the insinuation is that you’re dictated or beholden. If you’re ‘informed’, you’re utilising it on an ad-hoc basis. It should be neither of those things – and until it’s properly integrated into your newsroom, like email or Slack or telephone lines, it’s likely there’s always going to be tension about where it fits.
Data in the newsrooms of tomorrow
To which we say – of course. We couldn’t agree more.
That’s really the point. We shouldn’t be dismissing data because it’s not omnipotent. We shouldn’t be dismissing it because we fear it could become omnipotent. We shouldn’t even be pitting it against ‘real, live humans’. It’s part of the newsroom. And given the continued caution about how it should slot into workflows.
We like to think of the future of newsrooms being data rich. Data adds to the efficiency and accuracy of articles being produced, published and distributed – and it is able to add something at each stage of the Story Life Cycle, because there is genuinely no good reason not to.
So if we need to give a name to the relationship between data and the newsroom, what would it be? If it’s gone from being the ‘data driven newsroom’ to the ‘data informed newsroom’, what’s next? That’s the logical question, right?
We think it’s simple. Ultimately, it will be….. The newsroom.
Because no one talks about a ‘computer-rich’ or a ‘digital-driven’ newsroom do they?
The point at which we stop pointing out the difference, is the point at which we’ll know it’s been properly integrated.
That’s still a way off, but here are three things you can think about right now to give your newsroom a data-health check:
- The idea is about looking at content creation as an ongoing learning process, where insights derived from the planning, production and publication of one article feeds into the next, and so on. Data can help inform, challenge, and confirm editorial assumptions and decisions at each point of this cycle – this philosophy is a good place to give your workflow a health check.
- If the key to getting everyone happy and comfortable with incorporating data into their daily workflows lies in getting them used to data, the obvious question is, how accessible is data to your team? How comfortable are they using data and working with data insights?
- Moving towards a point where data is a fully integrated part of the newsroom is a process, and it doesn’t matter how far along that path you are, you can start right now, where you are. As the Chinese proverb goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now”.
Republished with kind permission of smartocto, the world’s most actionable editorial analytics system offering a bird’s-eye view on The Story Life Cycle©.