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Can Data Save Journalism? BuzzFeed, Vocativ, and The New York Times Weigh In

By Myriah Towner May 28th, 2014

From hot digital upstarts to the media old guard, a clear trend emerges: Data is quickly changing the way journalists tell stories. That change became most apparent last week when panelists from upstarts Vocativ and BuzzFeed joined The New York Times in discussing the ways data is impacting newsrooms and why data journalism has become such a dominant media trend.

“Statistical analysis leads to a story, and many newsrooms are making a big investment in newsroom analytics,” says Chris Wiggins, chief data scientist at The New York Times. “There is a lot of tech and data reshaping how we create journalism and promote journalism, even at a company that is 163 years old.”

Empowering journalists

Yoni Steinmetz, data lead at Vocativ, envisions a world where data analysis tools will allow journalists to discover stories by synthesizing the vast amount of data on the web. Vocativ’s technology combs open-data sources like social networks and government records to find connections between seemingly disconnected events. Mashable says Vocativ is “Like Vice—With a Lot More Data.”

“We are a tech company building tools for mining and understanding the deep web; the biggest database in the world,” Steinmetz says. “We use all of our technology for business decisions, finding leads for news stories, and enhancing current stories.”

Prioritizing the reader experience

BuzzFeed, meanwhile, is focused on using data to enhance the reader experience.

“What we are doing is kind of a more computerized stamp on what has been done for a long time,” says Jeremy Singer-Vine, data editor at BuzzFeed. “BuzzFeed has a brilliant team of data analysts working on the business and growth side, trying to figure out how to make the experience for readers as solid as possible.”

Revolutionizing the publishing business

As Singer-Vine notes, even though journalists have been working with data for centuries (consider the Guardian’s use of a data table in 1821), the revolution in data journalism is just occurring now. Wiggins credits this event to two major technological and sociological changes.

On the technological side, Wiggins says the proliferation of open-source tools, cloud computing, and available data has led to more data-driven stories. And sociologically, individual businesses are now realizing that data can deliver a huge competitive advantage, pointing to how data-driven recommendations transformed Netflix and Amazon’s businesses and how Moneyball allowed the Oakland A’s to outperform teams with much larger payrolls.

These factors fueled the growth of new players like BuzzFeed and Vocativ, but things are still a bit murkier for legacy publications. For example, a New York Times newsroom innovation report leaked earlier this month criticized the newspaper’s progress in adapting to the digital age.

According to Wiggins, newsroom analytics is young and growing at The New York Times, but it is news judgment that has kept it in business for 163 years.

“If you read the innovation report, there is a clear interest in newsroom analytics, and I think it will be developed, but it’s not nearly in the driver seat in the way that it is at many other publications,” Wiggins adds. “I think most decisions are made from news judgment by people who have been doing this for a long time, not so much data-informed or data-driven.”

Singer-Vine agrees that there must be a balance between data analytics and editorial judgment. He says that while BuzzFeed is renowned for their use of analytics to optimize their content, they still must consider what’s important and meaningful, not simply what attracts the most clicks.

Finding a new path to monetization

But is it possible to monetize data journalism? Steinmetz says it is all about scaling the process and allowing others to use their tools to make similar analyses.

“We are working on tools that can help verge junior and deep web analysts to create data sets on a daily basis,” he says. “We believe once we do that, we will be able to create so much data and insights to create ads and sponsored content that will be really beneficial to us.”

Wiggins says he feels the larger issue is whether data journalism is more profitable than traditional reporting—and he’s optimistic about it.

“There are a lot of production costs in going out and doing investigative news that data journalism does not necessarily incur,” he said. “Once somebody has created a code base tool, really anybody can break those stories, and that is something you see in data journalism.”

However, Steinmetz notes, you still need creative thinkers to turn data breakthroughs into stories.

“You can’t do anything with data without being creative,” Steinmetz says. “We are looking for smart people with a passion for those numbers.”

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