All Journalists Need To Be Data Driven

In 2001, ESPN.com had a “Most Sent” List. It seems ancient now, but it calculated how many times certain stories were emailed.

Since an ESPN.com writer like myself didn’t have access to overall site data — hits and uniques — I glanced at the list every day to give me a sense of what people were sending.

I realized, even back then, that even though I had a beat and a responsibility to cover some stories, I also had a responsibility to do stories that drove traffic. So every day I would study the “Most Sent” list and see what got people so excited that they were compelled to send it.

There were some surprising ones. An AP story of Takeru Kobayashi winning the Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island was the most sent story that year. The fact that the most sent story was something that was just on ESPN.com but wasn’t written by an ESPN.com writer got me thinking. Why aren’t we covering this? I pushed to blow out coverage, which is why every year on July 4th, ESPN now broadcasts the Hot Dog Eating Contest live. It’s easy eyeballs.

I wondered, when I arrived at ESPN.com in July of 2000, how ESPN.com had an “Outdoors” page that was worth maintaining. After studying the “Most Sent” list, I wondered no longer. The most sent stories included the world’s largest bears that were hunted, the most ridiculous size fishes caught and crazy stories about animals winding up in places they shouldn’t have been.

Yes, these were among the most sent stories on ESPN.com and they often rivaled the sent volume of the stories that we were “supposed” to cover — this guy scored a ton of points, this guy got traded, this guy got nailed with PED’s.

Looking at the “Most Sent” list forever changed me. I felt it gave me a handle on, not only what people loved to read about, but what people loved to share.

Over the years, I got more aggressive. As “hit tracking” became more prevalent and programs that followed this stuff were more accurate, I began to ask for my numbers. How did this story do? How did that story do?

When I mentioned the attention I was given to data to other reporters, it was often dismissed. It was almost looked at as if it were dirty to operate in that manner. That I wasn’t being faithful to the craft because I was allowing myself to be “corrupted” by cheap hits.

This was of course garbage because there was nothing cheap about the stories themselves.

Then came social media and my tracking became even more obsessive. Putting out 20–30 tweets a day, I tracked retweets, and later when Twitter offered more refined analytics, impressions.

As a reporter who has great flexibility over what I chose to do, I continued to do the stories I had to do, but paid more and more attention to stories that would generate buzz, that people would want to pass on.

I spent time on stories of people that generated the most interest — Johnny Manziel, Steph Curry, Ronda Rousey even Michael Jordan.

I, of course, wasn’t being selfish in my motives here. By doing stories on topics that gave me a better chance to boost my numbers, I was boosting ESPN.com’s numbers.

I recently read an article about some great reporters in the business who were suddenly let go. The excuse the organization gave was that they just weren’t bringing in the hits. Cheaper aggregators focused on getting those hits would work out better.

And while the industry as a whole was up in arms over the idea that reporters who consistently broke news were being replaced by guys who would take news that someone else had broken and put it out, the rationale actually makes sense if you believe that the effort in reporting the original story isn’t worth the replacement value over reporting it minutes later.

The simple fact is that we live in a dialogue world, not a monologue. We, as journalists and editors, can’t devote 100 percent of our time to what we think we should do. We have to devote a good amount of our time to what the masses want us to do. And if we don’t, we become irrelevant. Someone will find what they want, in the way they want it, within seconds.

That leads back to data based journalism. Media companies and journalists have a responsibility to arm everyone with the data every day. What did well? What didn’t? Why? Was it the way it was written? Was it the photos? Was it the headline, the link text? Where it was shared, when it was shared? There are a million questions.

Going back to the journalists who were told they weren’t cutting it — wasn’t it that organization’s responsibility to tell those journalists along the way, who were just doing their beat, that just doing the beat wasn’t enough. Maybe it was the journalists responsibility as well. Shouldn’t reporters know how their stories do? What sings? What doesn’t? What players should they write about and write about and write about again?

In the 15 years since I first started paying attention to that “Most Sent” list, data has gotten so much better. On Twitter, for example, I know what to put out when and what time to put it out.

What hasn’t changed is the fact that, for the most part, journalists aren’t freely given the data on their stories even though it’s in the best interest of both the organization and the journalist to have this information.

Broadening this out: Now replace “journalist” with every business and every employee. Data on consumer behavior is so good today that it should be shared with every layer of a business. We’re not there yet. But we will get there. We have to.