Digital Digest: Content is king, but data yields power behind the throne

Journalists and editors today not only need to know better how to create compelling content, but also how to best distribute and promote it in the various digital channels and take responsibility for this role.

CONTENT is still the absolute king for any successful media strategy. But as we have all learned over the years, great content is not always enough if it doesn’t break through the massive volume of competing information and noise.

Content needs help to find its audience.

Data can help to decide which stories are relevant to which users and at what point in time. Take the very well-known example of Google Trends. When the world-wide coronavirus pandemic first beganto emerge, Google Trends showed a significant increase in search queries, an indication in real time to newsrooms the subject was gaining relevance.

The same is true for social media, where relevance can be measured by the engagement and reactions that a certain topic receives. Newsrooms today can easily track and analyse users’ preferences on their sites and make editorial decisions based on this data. This is especially valuable when editorial resources are increasingly limited and you must decide where to concentrate the newsroom’s attention.

In a modern newsroom, Google Trends and insights from social media are essential resources. They can, for instance, be used in news meetings to get ideas or direction for the coverage of topics, help decide what to follow up on, but also help decide what not to do.

Data can be a strong editorial advisor, but it does not replace journalist-generated content. Too much reliance on data is a fear I still hear in many news organisations. Data is not the editorial decider — at least not yet. There were experiments with “programmatic publishing,” such as in the Nordic regions, but the results were mixed. The same is true for automated newsletters, which pretend to be an “editor’s choice.”

Perhaps one day algorithms might be that clever and the editorial trust in their quality so high that we might hand over more editorial decisions to them. But, for now, selecting the right stories and filtering out the noise remains the core job for media professionals.

And this is what our customers still expect, perhaps even more in these times of fake news, fake social media accounts, and “sinister” groups trying to (perhaps successfully) influence the outcome of elections or referendums. They expect professional editorial work with investigating, verifying, filtering, prioritising, creating a compelling narrative around a topic, and compiling everything in a user-friendly way.

This was true in the print days, where limited space forced the selection of a few stories and the page layout helped the reader determine what was more important and what was less important.

And it is even more true on digital platforms, as it is far more difficult to do for little mobile screens.

Journalists and editors today not only need to know better how to create compelling content, but also how to best distribute and promote it in the various digital channels and take responsibility for this role. To a certain degree, they need to become their own circulation manager.

This is where data can help. It can increase the impact of a story by informing decisions about the right time to publish and in which format for which audience. It can help determine whether video, podcast or infographics would better reach the correct target group, or if the audience for a particular story is better reached solely in print.

In the past, journalists had only a limited influence (or interest) of where and how the printed newspaper was distributed and how their stories were best presented. In the digital world, every journalist has much more control on securing the best possible impact of their work. This does not mean every journalist should call up the Web site editor and demand their articles get the top position. It is about understanding SEO and how to seed into channels such as LinkedIn, X (formerly Twitter), or other aggregators.

This has enormous implications for management, workflows, training, product, and even newsroom culture, as it often runs contrary to the traditional mindset, which holds that journalists only need to concentrate on outstanding journalism and somebody else in the organisation has to take care of how to distribute and monetise it.

For this mindset to change, silos between departments need to be torn down — not in a way that compromises editorial integrity, but in a way that provides data, often generated by departments on the business side, more deeply and in new ways in the editorial process. It means creating an environment where departments that are not used to working together develop understanding and mutual trust. After all, everyone is sitting in the same boat.

This audience-centric approach naturally leads to a review of the product and content portfolio to ensure it matches the needs of this audience. This process should be based not on traditional assumptions but on incorruptible data. What works, and what does not? This is an ongoing process.

The goal is to generate a common understanding where everybody is talking about the same goals and is singing from the same hymn sheet. A data-driven approach creates a new organisation that is self-reflective and self-critical, and ready to embrace digital as an opportunity.

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