Data That Matters – Chris Boutet of The Globe and Mail

September 11th, 2012 by Lauryn

Data is everywhere. Big data, ambient data, real-time, benchmarking – there’s so much that there’s no one metric or one way of using it that works for every company or every industry. The data leaders are the ones who take risks, who look at all the information available and decide what matters right now. We’re spotlighting these innovators in this “Data that Matters” blog series. We’re talking to people in various roles across multiple industries to see how they collect, make sense of, and act on their data. Read the full series. Today we get to hear from Chris Boutet, deputy editor, digital operations at The Globe and Mail. Chris takes a data-driven approach to audience development and editorial strategy… and why newsrooms should look to startups for inspiration. When most people think of data, they often think of it as being cold and impersonal – but in the case of web analytics, it actually brings us closer to people.

Data makes us more human-focused, behavior-focused.

Data allows newsrooms to become more closely attuned to their readers than ever before — watching how they interact with your product, what they like and don’t like, both in terms of the content and the user experience you offer. In journalism, data is changing how we think about, and go about creating, our product. Print newspapers used to be the main focus of our business and if you think about how they are made, they are traditionally built on a complex set of plans based on assumptions of what we think our audience is interested in knowing and we race towards a finished product. The reader feedback mechanism wasn’t really there in the same way it is now.

Now the idea of news is constantly changing. There is no finished product.

With online news, we don’t have to base our plans on assumptions. Web analytics tools like Chartbeat, Omniture and other make the process of gathering user feedback so much faster, and the process of improving what we do so much easier. The same principles apply to news coverage itself. User data gives newsrooms real, instant feedback on what our readership in interested in that we didn’t have before. This new insight allows editorial to plans shift and grow organically throughout throughout the newsday and over time — editors can make informed decisions about whether they should allocate more resources and stronger packaging to a particular topic or story, to provide more complete value and arguably a more relevant product. Now this is not to say that editors need to act on every single piece of data we see.

You don’t want to fall into the tyranny of the measurable. Not everything that’s measurable is valuable.

As a journalist, a news provider, it’s your job to perform a public service. So your editorial direction should never completely follow the whims of your online readership. Great journalism is the core of our business; you don’t want to diminish that, change everything you do for a few more clicks. But I do feel it’s important to consider your brand through the eyes of your audience. A lot of news providers think their brand is what they say it is, but I think it’s also what your audience defines as you – what do they come to you for? Which is precisely where data comes in. There’s something to learn there by weighing these in tandem. I believe newsrooms should look to startups as inspiration in bringing a new data-driven and risk-taking mentality into newsrooms to help us learn more about our audience and how to serve them better. Putting too much faith in things like market research and surveys as key feedback mechanisms can be dicey because it’s all hypothetical. I believe that putting our work directly the hands of users as quickly as possible, and then using data to test our assumptions and measure results, is the best way to learn what is a meaningful or useful product and what is not. Conduct experiments — construct a hypothesis, figure out how to test it, build something, send it live and iterate based on what you see. Build, measure, learn. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But you always learn something. We’ll be covering a new company each week – big & small, media & not, data junkies & analytics allergic – so let us know if there’s someone you want to see featured. Hit me up at lauryn@chartbeat.com.