Editorial analytics – turning insights into action

By Hannah Marsh

The Reuters Institute launched its latest Digital News Project report, Editorial analytics: how news media are developing and using audience data, with a lively panel discussion hosted by the Financial Times.

The report’s lead author Federica Cherubini was joined on the panel by FT Head of Audience Engagement Renée Kaplan, Audience Editor at the Guardian, Chris Moran and Deputy Head of Digital at the Times and Sunday Times, Nick Petrie. It was chaired by RISJ Director of Research and the report’s co-author, Rasmus Nielsen.

“I think what’s very clear is that we no longer live in a world in which it makes sense to be for or against analytics,” said Nielsen, as he introduced the report.

“The question is how organisations use analytics, and how well they use them. What came through very clearly in our research is that not everyone has an equally sophisticated approach to the use of analytics in newsrooms.”

Key areas discussed by the panel included a focus on newsroom culture, and how to ‘democratise’ data and insight, empowering journalists to make practical, everyday use of metrics.

“Data used to be treated a bit like nuclear waste in newsrooms – you didn’t want it anywhere near you and only experts can touch it,” explained Moran.

“Democratisation for me comes from involving the human beings who created the work the data is about – the journalists.

“They were thinking about a specific audience when they wrote the piece. What I’m interested in is making them more aware of the data – and on the opposite side, trying to get data analysts into the newsroom to contextualise the numbers that they’re looking at.”

Kaplan agreed that being able to explain and contextualise the insights given by data analysis was key for her team. She said that the immediate challenge was understanding how to turn insight into day to day action.

“You can have the most sophisticated tool in the world, giving you terrific insights, but what is the action to take from that insight?” she said.  “Making an actionable insight part of the day job is the immediate next step for us. It’s really important to de-binarise. We see a real phobia that we are being data dominated rather than data informed.”

Cherubini was keen to point out that the findings of the report, based on over 30 interviews with senior figures involved in developing analytics in news organisations, pointed to best practise systems using data to inform, not dominate editorial decisions.

“Analytics are not about the tyranny of numbers,” she said. “Quite the contrary, it’s actually about making editorial decisions supported by data and facts.”

Petrie outlined the challenges thrown up by making too much data available while newsroom culture remained underdeveloped in contrast to its data team’s sophisticated tools.

“People were using the same data to tell different stories,” he said. “So we rolled back a little bit so that we could have a bit more control. As we bring up those levels of education in the news room, we’ll extend it.”

The ambition of data democracy was a common theme throughout the discussion, and the key question to emerge was how to translate data insights into tangible actions.

“Analytics are not perfect” said Cherubini. “Some things are really difficult to measure and compare. Knowing what ‘good’ looks like is way more difficult than it can seem. And the data does not speak for itself – you always need a context, which leads to benchmarking, which is really challenging.”

“What we’ve seen is that many news organisations have very good data insights, but they don’t know what to do with it or really how to take it forward. The real question now will be how do we take it further and really make it something everyone can understand and use?”

Editorial analytics: how news media are developing and using audience data, by Federica Cherubini and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen launched at the Financial Times on February 23, 2016.

Download a PDF of the report here

Explore the report, along with essays and other Digital News Project work here.

The report is part of the Digital News Project 2016, which is supported by Google, via the Digital News Initiative.