Recent research conducted by the American Press Institute reveals that 85% of US publishers surveyed say studying subscribers “is very valuable”. However, almost 70% rate their proficiency in studying them as just moderate. This observation certainly holds true across markets and regions around the world.
All too often, navigating data analytics and data science can be a frustrating journey for journalists and business developers. Instead, what news publishers and newsrooms want is a better way to understand what their audiences value, what engages them, and what will make them paying customers. Without audience research, questions about who the audience is and what it needs tend to be answered based on hierarchy within the organisation or on assumptions about who the audience is. That is not good enough in an organisation dependent on audience participation and revenue to thrive and fulfil its mission.
We need powerful journalism analytics that can go beyond traditional traffic metrics, built around newsroom priorities to grow audiences, deepen engagement and drive subscriptions, and designed, so every user can see how their work contributes to larger organisational goals. As the API survey confirms, knowledge of reader behaviour is still a recent discipline for legacy news media organisations. For decades, efforts in this area were reserved for advertising research.
But everything changed in 2013. That year, WAN-IFRA measured a historic shift in the global news business model, with reader revenues exceeding advertising revenues for the first time. In the 20th century, print revenues dependably flowed from the outstanding work of ad sales, marketing and circulation. This is no longer the case in 2021. Like all enterprises and industries today, news organisations battle for the scarce time and attention of people who spend vast amounts of time on screens.
The reader becomes our first customer and the primary source of revenue, ahead of the advertiser. Today, the newsroom itself is the business — not circulation, not marketing, not ad sales. In an audience-centric, digital-first business model, journalists, content and editorial quality become the number one priority.
This is excellent news, but it requires a profound and rapid overhaul of our editorial organisations. Newsrooms move from traditional, functional-based organisations to cross-functional teams, where editors and journalists work with developers, marketers and analytic experts.
The new product management culture in the newsroom
As advertising reliance becomes an increasingly risky and redundant strategy, it is incumbent on publishers, large and small, to implement strategies that generate revenue from multiple sources. Many industry leaders recognize this need. A recent survey of media executives by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University revealed that publishers believe four different revenue streams will be essential in 2021. The old newsroom culture will need to pivot to a new product management culture to support those revenue streams. In this culture, the “lone wolf” and “command-and-control” leadership style is replaced by collaboration in teams, coaching and a delegation-style leadership. A culture of failure informed by data predominates.
We are, in a way, living in a similar symbiotic moment to what architecture experienced in the early 20th century. With the creation of the Bauhaus, the architect (the creator) joined the engineer and the businessman. Their ambition was to create a better world in tune with the needs of a society under reconstruction. Similarly, an unprecedented and profound strategic alignment between content, business and audience is at work in news organisations around the world.
New jobs for the journalists
This historical turning point necessarily leads to a new definition of the profession and the role of the journalist. It is agreed that a critical function of journalism is to hold politicians and powers to account. Is this enough to meet the new expectations of the public and build a lasting relationship with its subscribers? Journalism must offer much more.
Practical engagement with the audience and community of readers is required. What form this should take is under debate. I find much virtue in the contested principle of solution journalism. News audiences expect to be engaged as members of a community. They want immersive and rich experiences, with content that offers solutions to their problems. The new jobs of a journalist must commit to improving our readers’ quality of life, beyond the necessities of their life and where they live. It should also help the reader to work with others in the place where they live, with the ambition to make that place better.
Data documents, but does not decide
Data is like fuel in the business. You cannot just move ahead without being well informed about your editorial decision. Data science plays a significant role in newsrooms. It can apply in multiple ways like developing products, enhancing management decisions, predictive analysis, and many more, but it should not dictate the editorial line. There is a danger in making data the absolute arbiter of information. Data and consumer insight experts inform and document the editorial map. They do not replace the editorial decision. Their work is based on new disciplines and skills that have yet to be invented.
Data Science Expert Group for news
To address this challenge, WAN-IFRA just launched the Data Science Expert Group for news. The group is the first community of practice of its kind. It intends to create real change within the industry. The Data Science Expert Group is a WAN-IFRA initiative to arm practitioners with a better understanding of various project management methodologies used by data science teams in news organisations and how these might apply to their data science team. By sharing use-case studies, ideas, resources and connections, the group aims to accelerate disseminating good practices used in news organisations and how these might apply to their data science teams.
The group’s scope is on four expert domains: data analytics, data science, data engineering, and co-ordination and project management. The combination of these disciplines is essential. From our first international exchanges, it is already clear that it would be illusory to build a data strategy by only investing in dashboards and having the support of a team reduced to data analysis.
The Group is open to data practitioners working for a WAN-IFRA member news organisation. News media professionals willing to share experiences with industry peers to grow common knowledge can join the Data Science Expert Group after filling in the inquiry form available here.
Building the blocks of your data strategy will take time
Before media companies can benefit from an improved understanding of their audience’s behaviour, they must first build a reliable and sustainable foundation. The process that turns data into actionable insights for businesses and newsrooms is both complex and resource intensive. This takes time, and the benefits may not be felt for one or two years. However, this is the foundation phase during which the fundamental building blocks of the strategy must be put in place with method, judgement and discipline by teams of engineers and data scientists. Their mission will be to build a relationship of trust with the entire organisation. Trust, authenticity and loyalty to the corporate mission are essential to sound data management.
Where there is confusion about the discipline and role it plays in the organisation, the team manager is responsible for insulating the team members from unreasonable requests and explaining the team’s role to the rest of the organisation. If you are in this position, your team must have confidence in your support, and you must ensure you have the buy-in of your top management as well.
Second edition of the Future of Media supplement
This article was first published in The second edition of the Future of Media supplement published by Arena Holdings. Brand purpose, innovative revenue models, consumer attention, and much more, wraps up the 2021 Future of Media digital conference series. The second edition of the Future of Media supplement brings you excellent thought leadership articles, summaries of the online discussions, and video links to the actual online events. Read more here.