Digital Publishing
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To boost audience engagement, BBC and Hearst Magazines double down on data

Publishers like the BBC and Hearst Magazines are increasing their focus on data to boost audience engagement. Speaking at News Xchange in Edinburgh recently about the BBC’s plans to boost audience engagement, its Director General, Lord Tony Hall, said that he would like to see reporters embrace data so that the analysis is relevant and immediate within the organization.

There’s so much more information out there, a flourishing world of facts and figures and our job is to collect, curate and then make them available to our audience – bringing us closer to them.

Lord Tony Hall, Director General, BBC

“Content with a purpose”

Data is also an important part of Hearst Magazines’ strategy to boost engagement. The publisher is increasingly using data to make editorial decisions, following its President Troy Young’s motto: “content with a purpose.”

According to the Chief Content Officer at Hearst Magazines, Kate Lewis, in December 2017, they found that 28 of Hearst’s top 50 stories had research or original reporting. Stories with a unique piece of info or angle were performing better, and the figures favoring such stories held steady in the subsequent months. These findings encouraged them to begin focusing on data that indicated measurements of quality, like repeat visits and time spent.

There was an awareness that what we needed to go after was something different. The noise of the internet is at peak, and unique angles, original content can help break through that noise.”

Kate Lewis, Chief Content Officer at Hearst Magazine

“Editorial insight, powered by data”

To enable everyone across the organization to have access to reader data, the company has built a Slack tool called HANS (for “Hearst Analytics Slackbot”). It can be used by anyone in the organization to get information like which stories people are spending the most time with, trending topics, or the top-selling items in e-commerce posts.

Data analytics tools like HANS can quickly sift through vast amounts of data to identify trends, key facts and suggest new stories for reporters. It helps journalists add depth to their analysis and to put what has happened into context. It can also be used to provide deeper insights into what is happening around us, and how it might affect us.

According to Kate Lewis, “you have to make that evaluation before you publish. HANS is representative of the fact that the way we’re working now is editorial insight, powered by data. It gets people to see data as more part of their daily work life.”

“High on my agenda is getting people aligned on what we do every day. In that way, it’s been nice to have an easy way to talk about what’s working. The print editors understand what people are connecting with on their sites that they didn’t before,” Lewis added.

“Let the data speak”

Wired editor Chris Anderson famously claimed, big data meant ‘the end of theory’. That instead of formulating and testing hypotheses about how the world worked, now we can just ‘let the data speak’.

Rob Kitchin, the founder of the journal Big Data & Society, states, “big data analytics enables an entirely new epistemological approach for making sense of the world; rather than testing a theory by analyzing relevant data, new data analytics seek to gain insights ‘born from the data’.”

Machines can help humans get a head start on news.

Reg Chua, Executive Editor, Reuters, says, “we think about how both sides work best together. We can use machines to mine data, and use humans to tell those stories. Machines can help humans get a head start on news.”

In a world increasingly besieged by disinformation, data science can help journalists present stories that people need to know and understand. It can also help them do so in a fair and impartial manner, and in ways that best serve the audience, thus improving engagement.


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