In conversation: The Independent (UK) on using data, analytics to overcome editorial challenges

We’ve seen recent challenges for newsrooms — a global pandemic, transitioning entire operations to remote production — overwhelmingly translate to higher levels of collaboration than anyone could have ever predicted.

To better understand how it’s been possible, Christian Broughton, Editor at The Independent (UK), joined the Chartbeat and Dataminr teams for a recent conversation by video. We focused on the challenges being faced by the U.K.-based publisher, and just as important, how they’ve used data analytics and other technologies to produce high quality journalism throughout a global pandemic.

We’ve included excerpts from the conversation, featuring Jill Nicholson, Senior Director of Customer Education, and Kirsten Dewar, Associate Director of News at Dataminr, below. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Click here to get the full video on demand

How has The Independent adapted to these new challenges?

CB: We moved out of our newsroom just about a week before the official announcement from the government, early- to mid-March. In terms of newsrooms, ours has been quite good at change. Moving to being a fully-digital news organization really helped with that. Certainly for newspapers that have big print operations it’s maybe a little tougher to adapt.

There were some challenges when it first happened. Our first specific challenge that really stands out in my mind is that we had Kim Sengupta reporting in Iran on a trip there when we had a coronavirus situation, and we had to get him out of Iran pretty quickly because the border was closed. 

“The challenges have been so diverse, it’s the biggest, possibly most important stories of any of our lifetimes.”

The challenges have been so diverse, it’s the biggest, possibly most important stories of any of our lifetimes. So, there’s a journalistic challenge, there’s an operational challenge, then there’s the whole home working challenge thrown in there since we don’t have a newsroom. It’s quite something. As a news publisher you realize you’re pretty agile. We have [staff in] about a dozen cities around the world anyway, so we have to have systems that are portable, but we’ve never pushed them like this before.

Changes in the work-from-home setup

KD: What is the role of technology in the newsroom? Is there anything on your end that changed on your end, especially when it came to technology and the way it’s used?

CB: I think a lot of our tools came out of agile web development some years ago and we transported those into the newsroom. That’s just a product of being a digital innovator and disruptor on our end within the news space.

I think the extent to which we are dependent on these systems are the challenges. For example, if you’re a news editor commissioning a reporter to write something and send it back to you, it’s a process that’s quite easily definable. So, things like Trello and Slack are great for that.

“There’s a human interaction that’s very valuable in a newsroom.”

But. when you’re in the middle of a really big or complicated news story you just want to look across a desk and get a reassuring nod from your news editor. Or you’re a news editor that just wants to listen in on that phone call, that’s where the challenge comes in. There’s a human interaction that’s very valuable in a newsroom.

JN: I think as everyone transitioned to work-from-home, they were trying to perfect their setup. In early March it was helping everyone transition. Now it’s that they don’t have the interactions to ask questions of data. Time matters. Plus, the loop from data to action is a lot shorter. It becomes this question of how to use data when you’re insanely busy with everything else.

Chartbeat measures reader interactions from 70 countries around the world, so we have this amazing global view of what’s really happening to help our clients put their growth in perspective. 

For instance, how has coronavirus affected global traffic? How has it affected UK traffic? For us, the more we can identify those opportunities for our customers, the more we can help them stay focused and  stay impactful as they’re trying to figure everything else out. The biggest change for me is that I tend to visit a lot of newsrooms to sit with them and help integrate data into the editorial decisions that they make. For us, it’s about how Chartbeat can change to provide that same level of support that everyone got from us even if we can’t hop on a plane and give everyone a real bear hug.

CB: In our office we have a Chartbeat Big Board, a wall about eight screens as one big video wall in our newsroom. It’s not up there to beat people with a traffic stick at all, it’s up there to encourage. It feels like it gives you a pat on the back sometimes when you’re having a really good day. And you can see your audience team is doing a really good job of getting it ranked [in search] and social teams doing a good job of getting those stories out there. And when you look at that board, you think that’s really robust, proper, meaningful, original exclusive journalism now driving our business, it’s really encouraging. There are also loads of “micro-decisions” on the way that encourage best practices by awareness of that [data]. 

JN: With reporters, you really have to be honest about how much they should be using audience data. If you’re a homepage manager, you really should be looking at that data consistently to catch those quick signals. For reporters, we tend to recommend subscribing to reports to check in with your audience in the morning because you’re busy reporting. It has been interesting to see people realizing that they need to keep more of a pulse on their audience than ever before.

“The data is here to help us improve and help us understand. And just because something isn’t going perfectly doesn’t mean we should shy away from the data.”

I think you made a good point that data is not a “stick” or a judgement on people. That’s something I enjoyed about visiting The Independent — the culture. The data is here to help us improve and help us understand. And just because something isn’t going perfectly doesn’t mean we should shy away from the data.

CB: I’m a big believer in making this data available to a newsroom. Everyone can look at everything, there’s no kind of sealed vault. And if you just put it there, people are curious. You can see people walk down the corridor and stare up at the Big Board, and look at something. Then someone will go past and ask, “What are you looking at?”.

It’s just having that present. You don’t have to say you must sign up for that report every week. You just put it in front of them. They’re journalists, they’re curious. They want to know facts. If you put it there, you don’t have to have a big overarching, looming strategy.

What does the data show us about audiences today?

JN: We’ve been doing research about how the pandemic is affecting coverage and traffic. The first thing we wanted to see what overall coverage looks like. We used natural language processing to separate coronavirus and non-coronavirus content.

What we’ve seen is that [coverage has been] falling since mid-March, but there are still approximately 72,000 articles per day, which run the gamut of how to best wash your hands to political and government stories. For us, we always wonder if coverage is outpacing the appetite for information. In the early days, the answer was it was not. Even at height of coverage, traffic was still primarily non-Covid. What we did see was that every country saw a peak in traffic within 3-4 days of a lockdown order. 

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Google and Facebook also saw a lot of traffic. Google traffic is still 20% higher than in February, while Facebook is almost back down to normal. The growth in search is still high.

Really the growth in Google is a call for a specific kind of content. For us, engagement from Google readers is noticeably higher when coming from Google. There’s a clear tie between higher engagement and higher rate of return. There have been some really fantastic longform pieces. It’s been interesting how much time readers are willing to devote to that content.

CB: A lot of that [data] resonates there. [Coronavirus] is fundamentally the biggest news story you can name. It touches business, economics, health, poverty, race. It’s driving deep engagement with journalism on a massive subject about which there is a justifiable and understandable level of deep interest. And if that’s the situation, there has to be some upside for journalism there.

When you talk about engagement metrics, it’s not about the big numbers. Something that’s come up is the rate of our supporters and the level of subscriptions have accelerated. That reflects the deep, rich engagement we’re seeing. That’s encouraging. I think that shows there are long-term benefits as well. There’s been quite a bit of short-term disruption in everyone’s [business] model, but I think there’s good things for journalism coming out of this.

On major events, including the 2020 U.S. elections

CB: I can’t wait to see Jill’s charts on the U.S. election. We take it very seriously here, we have staff in Washington, D.C. and in Westminster. Everyone wants to know [about the election]. We have two populist leaders in two countries. There’s an appreciation in that journalism plays a purpose in society. 

JN: In the past, we’ve produced data on Brexit and the U.S. election in 2016, particularly how readers behave during major events. This is helping us see how global of a society we are. We’re now starting to see how decisions each government makes affects all of us. I’m interested to see what international traffic looks like … and to see what news readership looks like through this fall. 

On integrating real-time information into workflows

CB: I would emphasize that we use this alongside traditional methods. When people hear about tools like Dataminr in the newsroom, there could be concern we’re publishing directly from that information. No responsible newsroom would work off a single datapoint. 

KD: The way we think about it, it’s putting that early signal into the hands of the journalist to take ownership and action.

JN: In a similar way, we provide a lot of tips to our customers for breaking news situations. While that focus on SEO is important at the onset of breaking news, we think it’s more about who you’re bringing in through Google: are they  interested enough in the content to come back?

Then, it’s a question of, “What kind of experience did you give them once you had them on your owned and operated channels?” The homepage does a great job of showing off everything a site has to offer, but on article pages we have to think more about that. 

A majority of direct traffic is now mobile. When we think about attracting readers, how can we work with editors on related links? Readers know what site they’re on and what they’re getting if they come back more often. When you get them to a second page, they are more likely to come back. Yes news needs to be fast, but if it’s accurate they’re more likely to come back.

“The data and the news judgement have to work together.”

Before, once a story was ink on print, it was done and you moved on. You can’t do that anymore. You have to look at data and make adjustments. A lot of our work is helping publishers find those points of friction so they can build better best practices. The data and the news judgement have to work together. Blindly following the data … I think you know where that led us. When the two come together, it can create faster decisions that have the impact you want.

There are still a lot of opportunities for media to attract new audiences. Now, they have the advantage of data to support them.

KD: Christian, any last thoughts?

CB: One thing I would comment on is that we have to try to use the term “traffic” in a positive context. It typically has these negative connotations around the world and in news as well. The way I like to speak about it with my team is, “How can we get the richest stories to the highest number of readers?” If we are in tune with what readers want to see and if they’re finding … journalism that they really value, they’ll come back. 

There are a lot of old-fashioned values, values I’m determined The Independent will never let go. Ones we stand for, the kinds of things we do, the mission we’re on. Those values play directly into the conversation. Call it traffic if you like, but also readership in a slightly more traditional sense. Delivering articles that people get to the bottom, that they do spend several minutes reading, that do encourage them to come back for more. Part of it is about presenting links for people to click on, but it’s also about suggesting the next thing someone should read to take them deeper into a story. There’s always a way of bringing the two worlds together.

These tools, in the 21st century, help us to do a more agile, but a much more powerful and deeper job of journalism. And that makes me very happy.

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