If you were in the audience with me at Social Media Week in NYC, then you’re relieved like me to learn that smart editors are still in control of editorial content. The numbers – clicks, views, hits, shares, likes, favorites – may guide the editorial decision makers, but don’t drive their decisions…for the most part. And while it might not always be this way, it should be.
This may come as a surprise to some of us. It stands to reason that if a popular story, or video or any other visual is a rousing success, then a media company would want to do what it can to repeat it. Well, it does, just not in the way you might think.
I was a journalist at about the time web traffic figures really started to invade the planning process (early 2000s). It predates modern social media of course. We designed story packages for web portals such as Yahoo! much like a media outlet today might for Facebook. But it didn’t change the fact that we were reporting the story. It simply influenced the packaging and delivery of that story.
Representatives from Business Insider, Medium, FiveThirtyEight, The New York Times, Vocativ and BuzzFeed comprised the panel, “Is Data the Future of Journalism?” at SMW on Feb. 26. They all weighed in on the importance of a number in the newsroom when it comes to what’s published and where it’s published.
Said BuzzFeed’s Data Science Lead Jane Kelly: “It’s hard to build something that’s smarter than a 200-person newsroom.” She spoke in reference to using data as a predictive and/or a prescriptive tool to help make editorial calls. “They (editorial staffers) are crafting the story in a way that’s hard to do programmatically.” The same can be said of a smart PR team tasked with developing content for a client.
Said FiveThirtyEight Senior Editor Chadwick Matlin: “I don’t think it (data) is the future of journalism because data is just evidence and any good journalism before was evidence based. It’s going to be now and it’s going to be in the future as well.” Well put. And data in journalism is no more important than it is in PR. Client data helps us tell and support a story and in some form or another it always has. It always will.
Then what’s the measure of good editorial content? Well, it’s perhaps best addressed in the anecdote shared by Business Insider’s President and COO, Julie Hansen.
Hansen said that one day Business Insider founder Henry Blodgett posted an in-depth story on the site about Yahoo! It was well received. Hours later and completely unrelated, he posted a picture of a whale crushing a boat. The Yahoo! story took several hours to produce, while the whale photo, which he sourced from elsewhere, took minutes. Both drew an outstanding audience. But it doesn’t mean the site will focus on sea mammals forthwith. It just means it and other sites are best served when they give readers a choices.
Ultimately, that’s what numbers empower editors to do – make the right choices.