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Something to think about... / blog
Journalists not liking data is weird

Written by on July 18, 2016

As a media analyst, one problem I often come across is this sheer animosity from journalists towards data and analytics.

One reason is due to fear. For instance, a while back I was asked: "How can editors survive in the future of data?" Which tells you more about how old media defines their role than any problem with the actual data.

The problem here is that old media still defines itself as the bringer of news, in which the editor picks what you should see. But today, the internet is the bringer of news and the platforms algorithmically ranks what is most popular. And if this is your view of the world, I can see why editors think data is putting their role at risk.

But this isn't really why we need editors. The real reason why we need editorial focus is to guide us. You will notice, for instance, that YouTubers don't have this problem.

When Robert Llewellyn recently talked about CleanSpace, a crowdsourced air quality sensor that you can wear, he was not worried about the future of data. Neither in his reporting, nor in his ability to define an editorial strategy.

The reason for this, of course, is that he isn't defining his publication as a platform of random content with no editorial focus.

Data forces clickbait

Another reason that journalists don't like the data is because it forces them into publishing articles they don't want to publish. This is the result of what we see from the endless focus on shallow view metrics over the past years. As soon as you start to look at those specific metrics, you end up creating listicles about completely pointless things.

This is an argument that I certainly can understand, but it's also the wrong way to look at it. The problem here isn't the data, but that publishers are measuring the wrong things.

And let me prove this in three ways:

One way to prove that we are optimizing for the metrics is simply to look at the 'revenue per ad view', which is generally in decline. In other words, brands are paying less for each view because the view is less valuable.

Another way is to look at people's 'Confidence in Newspapers', which has now dropped (again) to an all time low.

A third way is to look at what people actually want from the media. PEW did a study about this and found that the main focus areas in the media (candidate's comments, lives etc.) is not what people want to read. What people actually want is more focus on things that really matter, being their experience and stance on important issues.

Isn't this amazing?

But don't their clicks say otherwise?

Yes, in terms of clicks, people look at different types of articles, but every single metric that counts tells you that this is the wrong metric to look at. Who cares what people click on the most if the result is a continuous decline in ad revenue per view, a loss of trust and confidence, and a growing annoyance by the public that the media isn't covering the right things?

We are killing ourselves because we are looking at the wrong metrics. The problem isn't the data. The problem is that it's the wrong data. You don't solve this by data ignorance.

Data is boring

Another reason is the perception that most journalists have that data is boring. I might be biased here since I'm an analyst, but I find this to be a really odd argument.

For instance, back in April, CareerCast came out with their annual 'Jobs Rated Report'. In this we could read that the best job was to become a data scientist, while the absolute worst job was to become a journalist.

This didn't sit well with most journalists. For one thing, almost everyone read this report wrong, in that they thought it ranked how satisfied you would be working as a journalist.

As one put it:

But the 'best' jobs sound like my idea of hell. Sitting in a cubicle crunching numbers for a spread sheet? No thanks. For my job yesterday I went to Clearwater Beach to watch sand sculptors at work for a story. Not sure if I had the best job or they did that day.

But this wasn't what the report said at all. CareerCast's report didn't look at whether you would like the job or not. It looked at the outlook potential of each profession. And the combination of relatively low pay ($37,200 per year on average) with a negative growth outlook (-9%) puts journalism way behind the potential of data scientists, who are estimated to earn $128,240 per year on average with a 16% positive growth potential.

So are journalists more happy with their lives? Well, not really.

Earlier this year, the UK Office for National Statistics (ONS) ran the numbers, and found this:

BTW: If you can manage to become the CEO of a florist brand which delivers flowers by air, and has an office on a farm, your life is going to be euphoric ;)

But you see what I'm doing here? I'm using data to make this story come to life. And this is the reason that I do not understand why journalists aren't totally in love with data.

Data is the tool that you can use to make your stories a million times more insightful. It's the difference between an article where you are merely writing about what someone might think is happening, and being able to give your readers actual insight.

A very good example of this is these points made by the Guardian in their article, 'Our nine-point guide to spotting a dodgy statistic'. Here you can learn about common tactics politicians use to intentionally mislead the public.

But the problem is that journalists often don't consider any of these at the time. The common tactic by newspapers is to first simply report what the politicians said, without analysing it, and then maybe a week later, write another article analysing whether it was true or not. But by that time, it's far too late. The damage has already been caused.

One good example of this is when Trump said that Mexicans are rapists: "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists." He said this on June 16, 2015, and it was the defining moment that kick-started his campaign (as part of his speech that he was running for President).

At the time, most newspapers merely reported what he said (no analysis). Some newspaper called his speech 'rambling' (opinion), but how many newspapers did you see who checked the data?

For instance, do you know what the rate of reported rape per capita is in Mexico compared to the US? If you don't know this, you should look it up. (Hint: it's more than twice as high in the US than in Mexico).

Recently, we have heard more and more journalists argue that we are now in a post-truth society, where emotions out-compete facts. But this isn't actually true, because at the time where people needed to hear the facts, most newspapers merely reported what was said. And by the time the newspapers actually did their analysis, people had already made up their mind.

Fact-based journalism doesn't work as an afterthought. We have to reach people before they decide what to believe. We need journalists to be data focused from the beginning, and not publish anything a politician says before the data/numbers have been analyzed.

But it goes even deeper than that, because the data also helps you understand yourself.

Think about it like this:

The last time you went to went out for a run, did you track your performance? Of course you did.

The reason we all do this is because tracking your exercise helps you understand how you are doing. It gives you goals to aim for. It helps you focus. It teaches you things about what it is that you are doing. And it takes the whole thing to a much more enjoyable and fun level.

Sure, you could go for a run without it, but then you wouldn't know how you were doing. You wouldn't know if you were wasting your time, or whether you might be performing worse without realizing it.

Right?

So why are journalists perfectly happy about tracking their exercise (if I am to believe the journalists I know on Twitter), but not their articles?

It doesn't make any sense.

I can only assume that the reason why so many journalists don't want to track this is because you are afraid of what you might find. In a market with a negative growth, I can understand why some wouldn't take that risk. But it's an irrational behavior.

And mind you, it isn't just the journalists who are doing this. The Editors-in-Chief are doing it too. Here is the Editor-in-Chief from Liverpool Echo:

Again, this doesn't make any sense. It's like saying that he is not measuring his performance when he exercises. And when he does, he fiddles with the numbers to make them look better than they really are.

What we have here is basically two problems.

One problem is that journalists have developed this entirely weird perception of data, which has turned their interest in data into a negative.

But the other and much bigger problem is cultural. And it's a cultural problem that only exists in old media companies. Digital natives use data by default. It's part of their DNA.

Every YouTuber is 100% aware of how they are doing. They know how many views they have. They know what percentage of those views are full views. They know how many subscribers they have, they know which videos generated the most amount of subscribers. They know which videos created loyalty (which leads to more subscribers and new Patreons) and which videos only created short term exposure (which only results in a view). They understand the difference between a video that is shared/embedded a lot, and a video that drives long term engagement with their existing audience.

They know all this because they deeply care about it. They see data about how they are doing the same way as they look at exercise data.

Traditional journalists need to do this too. Data isn't about boring spreadsheets. It's about insights and understanding. It's about knowing yourself and how you perform. And for journalists, it's also about using data to help your readers know your stories better.

We need a culture change around data. And it starts with each one of us.

So here is my question to you: How many real readers do you have for each one of your stories (on average)? And what percentage of those are connected readers who are coming back because they love to follow your writing?

Wouldn't you like to know this?

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.

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