‘Raining clicks’: why we need better thinking on technology, data and journalism

The glory days. ‘The media companies of our era don’t think of themselves as heirs to a great ink-stained tradition.’

I’ve spent the last eight years building the case for using audience data in newsrooms and the tools and culture required to make it a force for good. So reading Franklin Foer’s piece When Silicon Valley Took Over Journalism was a deeply bizarre experience. Over the first four years of my work at the Guardian, I encountered almost every possible objection to what I was doing and I thought long and hard about each one. At that point a great deal of my job was about making sure that my instincts, processes and arguments were genuinely robust. Foer’s piece is a collection of the most ill-considered objections I saw, blended into one long, unappealing cocktail.

To be clear, there’s the odd thing here that I agree with. It’s obviously true, for example, that publishers need to be more robust in dealing with technology companies (although ironically one of the things we should be asking of them is more data). It’s also true that homogeneity can be dangerous. But the intelligent application of data can also help us spot where this is doing damage.

But most of these arguments, prejudices masquerading as arguments, childish hopes that everything can just go back to ‘normal’ and windy emotional appeals are zombies. They’re dangerous, stupid and they have no business climbing out of their grave and causing damage in 2017.

Technology isn’t an amorphous lump of stuff

The single biggest problem with the piece is the tendency to take anything that went wrong around the New Republic and the wider industry, gather it up and shove it in a big bucket labelled Silicon Valley or Technology. At various points Foer covers the use of data, data itself, platforms, algorithms, selling advertising, advertising itself, revenue, virality and search engine optimisation. Considering the experience he went through, the absolute conviction dripping from each line and his expressed commitment to good journalism, it’s surprising that he seems to have given so little thought to any of these specific issues.

Powerful≠Evil

Data is a powerful tool for changing the behaviour of individuals and organisations. It can shape and reshape products (whether you’re talking about the journalism produced by an organisation or an app or a physical object). There is every possibility that the wrong metrics and the wrong culture can cause real and lasting damage to an organisation. But there’s a flipside here that Foer can’t allow himself to see: data is equally a force for good, provided you’re prepared to think carefully about the change you want.

It wasn’t the data that did it

What went wrong at the New Republic? It wasn’t data. If the piece can be taken at face value, it was a complete and abject failure of anyone involved, including Foer, to think about whether an ad-driven business model could ever work for “something close to a cult” with a readership that “couldn’t fill the University of Mississippi’s football stadium.”

This bit, surely, is obvious: if your plan involves entirely changing your journalism to secure your future, then you probably need to give it more thought. This has literally nothing to do with data.

Audience data isn’t just page views…

We would resist the impulse to chase traffic, to clutter our home page with an endless stream of clicky content. Our digital pages would prize beauty and finitude; they would brashly announce the import of our project — which he described as nothing less than the preservation of long-form journalism and cultural seriousness.

Considering this stated aim, why the hell is the only metric mentioned in this epic piece page views?

… but page views are pretty useful too

Here’s a thing: looking at page views doesn’t actually mean you only care about pieces with numbers in the millions. It also might lead you to notice that, while populist topics have a wider potential audience (just as they always have in any medium), your long-form piece on Turkmenistan was read in full by 30,000 people. It might lead you to spot that you haven’t even properly promoted it yet and that even more people might engage with something you’re incredibly proud of. Imagine that. Imagine a world in which looking at page views doesn’t only lead you to write about kittens and completely renege on your own stated editorial ambitions and beliefs. Imagine a world in which you use data to put your excellent journalism in front of a wider audience. Franklin Foer apparently never tried.

Growing audience doesn’t have to be a con trick

People clicked so quickly, they didn’t always fully understand why. These decisions were made in a semiconscious state, influenced by cognitive biases. Enticing a reader entailed a little manipulation, a little hidden persuasion.

Here’s another failure of imagination and thought (not to mention a pretty contemptuous view of the capabilities of readers in the 21st century). Buzzfeed’s viral strategy is basically inapplicable to serious journalism, as partly evidenced by Buzzfeed News’s difficulties in replicating the audience of the broader company despite great journalism. Equally, Upworthy’s aggregation and headline testing approach just doesn’t relate. In both cases the nature of the content is as important as the method of delivery. But using audience data to spot when a story you care about isn’t connecting with readers is a hugely positive thing. There’s a world of difference between writing misleading headlines and making a headline work well in a digital environment. Part of resisting that first impulse is to do with monitoring time spent on page, a metric Foer never mentions.

This entire paragraph doesn’t stand up to the slightest consideration

Makers of magazines and newspapers used to think of their product as a coherent package — an issue, an edition, an institution. They did not see themselves as the publishers of dozens of discrete pieces to be trafficked each day on Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Thinking about bundling articles into something larger was intellectually liberating. Editors justified high-minded and quixotic articles as essential for “the mix.” If readers didn’t want a report on child poverty or a dispatch from South Sudan, they wouldn’t judge you for providing one. In fact, they might be flattered that you thought they would like to read such articles.

Makers of magazines didn’t see themselves as the publishers of dozens of discrete pieces to be trafficked each day on Facebook, Twitter, and Google because they weren’t. But it would be odd for an industry that describes itself as the media not to think about the emergence of an utterly new medium. In fact, put in those terms, it would look like an abdication of responsibility.

Editors still produce high-minded and quixotic articles. I’m unaware of any reader ever judging us for having provided a dispatch from South Sudan when they didn’t want it and we ironically have plenty of data and feedback to tell us that people are delighted when we write something on a tricky subject that convinces them of its importance.

Finally, the mix isn’t dead. While too many people got distracted by Buzzfeed’s focus on off-platform, most sensible organisations continued to understand the importance of their home page. This is where we get to show the breadth and nuance of our journalism as a package. For the Guardian, whether or not a person’s visit includes a trip to our home page is a huge indicator of loyalty and propensity to pay. It doesn’t take too long to come up with metrics and tools to try and encourage that kind of behaviour in our readers.

Romance is dead?

Whenever logical arguments against data are shaky, you can be certain they’ll be buttressed with emotive props. Some will clumsily stereotype people or skills in a way that’s reminiscent of the recent Google internal memo. Some misrepresent an earlier golden age in the way certain Conservatives fetishise the 50s. Foer’s piece is full of examples.

My vision of the world was moralistic and romantic; his was essentially technocratic.
The ascendant media companies of our era don’t think of themselves as heirs to a great ink-stained tradition.
Unlike television, print journalism had previously shunned the strategic pursuit of audience as a dirty, somewhat corrupting enterprise
Idealism was a word that melted my heart, and I felt uncontainable joy at the prospect of agreement.

As far as I’m aware, that great ink-stained tradition still needed to make money. Pragmatism is pretty essential if you want idealism to stick around.

Take some responsibility

Every time I sat down to work, I surreptitiously peeked at [Chartbeat] — as I did when I woke up in the morning, and a few minutes later when I brushed my teeth, and again later in the day as I stood at the urinal.

For a man who claims to have been permanently plugged into a realtime data source, Foer’s absolute lack of insight around data and journalism is astounding.

My master was Chartbeat… Sometimes, I would just stare at its gyrations, neglecting the article I was editing or ignoring the person seated across from me.

Has there been a more supine or pathetic statement written about journalism recently than this? It sums up the key message of the whole piece: it wasn’t my fault. The data made me do it.

The saddest thing about this piece is that it should be great. We need strong, robust thinking about where audience data takes journalism. We need critical thought that challenges us to ensure that outcomes are positive. Foer’s piece is a missed opportunity for all of us.

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