When Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 mysteriously went missing in March 2014, the story completely dominated the news cycle for at least a week. But one network stretched the opportunity too thin, covering the story long after any new details emerged about the missing flight. Why? Because data told it to. The result? Higher ratings.
In fact, CNN’s ratings surged by nearly 100 percent in prime time, according to The New York Times. But while their numbers might have surged, a survey by YouGov revealed that public perception of CNN decreased three weeks into their coverage of the missing Malaysian flight.
But if every news source is constantly on a wild chase for more clicks and bigger audiences, can CNN be blamed for milking the sensational story? They may not have reported the cold hard facts, but they were motivated by them: Data from three different analytics systems and overnight TV ratings informed CNN that content about the missing flight was bringing in big numbers, prompting the network to push more coverage of the incident.
More than ever, it has become apparent that data is impacting the way publishers are telling stories. As a result, news organizations are taking advantage of data-based reporting to uncover new leads and enhance storytelling, while also leveraging analytics services offered by tech companies like Parse.ly and Chartbeat to inform their decisions.
As data becomes a more dynamic tool for newsrooms, editors are faced with a new challenge: avoiding the temptation to chase clicks, and make sure that they are using data to actually serve the story.
During a panel last month, Jeremy Singer-Vine, data editor at BuzzFeed, said that publishers constantly need to be find the balance between reporting what is important and what readers want to read.
“BuzzFeed has made a name in analytics, optimization, and learning from what readers read,” he said. “At the same time, it’s a balance on the editorial side of what’s important and what’s meaningful.”
Fellow panelist Chris Wiggins, chief data scientist at The New York Times, agreed, adding that news judgment is key.
“The things that really count are not always easy to measure. There is a bit of alignment at the Times between the belief that what’s good for the business is good news judgment and impact,” he said. “There is a sense that the things that will keep the company are not the things that are quantified.”
Steve Buttry, digital transformation editor at Digital First Media, acknowledged that data is a tool that journalists should be leveraging in their newsrooms because it is simply a part of doing good journalism (i.e., using data to find information showing a good trend or bad trend in a community, as well as using metrics to determine how well stories did with an audience). In the case of CNN covering MH 370, he believes that while there is value in covering the story, there is a line between reporting something of value and stripping a story down to a trivial level.
“The core story there of an airliner full of people absolutely disappearing—you can’t tell me every editor or news director in the world doesn’t recognize the news value in that story,” Buttry said. “At some point, CNN, because they were getting good ratings on that, turned it into a trivial level, but it being a big story is sound editorial judgment.”
According to Parse.ly CEO Sachin Kamdar, when it comes to publishing, data should only be a means for understanding what to measure.
“In their case, what they wanted to measure was, for example, a week’s worth of interest,” Kamdar said. “If you use the data to only measure what you’re getting hit with in a week’s worth of interest, sure you’re going to optimize for what makes sense there. But some of the more meaningful publishers are looking at different metrics and other ways to understand what success means to them.”
With plenty of analytics tools available to publishers, news organizations have more opportunities than ever to produce stories informed by data.
“I have never seen a data story that didn’t fit some pattern of traditional journalism, only it’s based on better facts—facts you can’t find without analyzing the data,” Buttry said.
Kamdar added that data also empowers investigative reporting. He noted that good content has to come from people, not a machine. However, he believes data will allow publishers to use their resources more efficiently so they can focus on areas that will resonate with their audience. But, again, it takes human power to synthesize and communicate the data.
“It’s hunches and instinct combined with data that create really meaningful strategies moving forward,” Kamdar said. “When you can take what your intuition is and combine that with data, it’s a really powerful argument for being efficient and successful moving forward.”
As technology continues to advance, data will only become more useful to journalists, and according to Buttry, it will also provide publishers with data about user experience and reader interest.
“Data is good for journalism and it’s good for business,” he said. “Good journalism doesn’t survive unless there’s good business behind it.”
In Kamdar’s opinion, with the publishing industry evolving so quickly, publishers will need to think about what success means to them, how they can measure it, and how they can achieve those goals, while also making sure their content remains dynamic for their audiences.
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