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Ascertaining ‘what the readers want’

If there’s one factor that makes old-style editors and journalists extremely uncomfortable about new-age newsrooms, it is the role readership metrics play. Many newsrooms across the world today measure reader habits real-time. They have the tools to do so. The more advanced among these (typically in the U.S. and Europe) have the capabilities to build a profile of individual readers, helping them serve up stories in a personalised manner.

Sriram Srinivasan

In a print-only era, things were different. Then, readership data were basic, too infrequent, vague, and, on top of all that, mattered only to the business side within newspapers. Whatever their inadequacies (and perhaps because of that!), these numbers were still good enough for the business side to sell the ad space. There was nothing in it for the editorial side to get excited about. And they didn’t.

Newsrooms cannot continue this indifference anymore. For, in a >digital age, journalists no longer have the luxury of writing for a captive audience. Audiences have moved. Their reading habits have changed. They are no longer wedded to one news source — they have countless alternatives. Engaging them, therefore, is a real challenge. Data, when used well, can help newsrooms in meeting this challenge.

The catch: traditionalists in positions of editorial power may see this as an intrusion into their space, as this is essentially about what the reader wants. And this was the question that the editors of an earlier era were supposed to understand better than anyone else. They were paid for this.

There are two questions that may arise now. One, are editors getting redundant? Two, are news priorities going to be decided merely by what is popular?

Let’s take the second question first. The >popularity theme is what researchers Jonathan Bright and Tom Nicholls, both from the Oxford Internet Institute, explored in a study conducted last year. They sifted through 40,000 articles, published over six weeks in five major news outlets in the U.K. — the BBC; The Daily Telegraph; The Guardian; The Daily Mail; and The Mirror. They found that “being a most-read article decreased the short-term likelihood of being removed from the front page by around 25%.”

They wrote that audience data in the hands of journalists, “combined with increasing pressures on editorial business models, has created worries about the potential for ‘populism’ online: that editorial judgement would be overridden by traffic statistics.”

A disclaimer here: popular content need not be frivolous content. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the newsroom having access to a real-time data system that churns out the following metrics: number of page views, information about where the readers are coming into a story from, which social networks drive a story, how many readers of a particular story clicked on to another story, and even who the top influencers are.

What’s important is how such data is used. The features described in the above lines are present in The Guardian’s home-grown tool Ophan. The tool is open to everyone in the newsroom. Importantly, its use hasn’t made the newspaper resort to cat videos, an oft-used euphemism for frivolous but extremely viral content and something Buzzfeed is famous for. A article about the tool mentioned how The Guardian is more concerned about how many people clicked through an article from Facebook than how many ‘likes’ it got, which is an example to emphasise that it matters how data is used.

A few months ago, journalists at The Washington Post and The New York Times were given access to reader data. More newsrooms will follow. A good tool in the hands of a good team will help the right content reach the right audiences at the right time. It will help maximise reach.

And this brings us to the first question. Editors are still relevant in driving news, deciding what to cover, allocating resources and ensuring quality. Also, flipping the argument, can anyone deny that what got played up in the print-era was, in some measure, an assumption about what “our readers want”? There was no way to back those claims up.

“Metrics tell you how you’re performing,” The Washington Post editor Martin Baron told reporters at the World News Media Congress a few months ago. “They’re not going to tell you your next story.”

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 3:52:12 AM |

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