ISOJ panel to discuss readers’ data and how to tailor stories to them

Publications should publish “all the news that’s fit to print,” as The New York Times coined the slogan back in 1897. But now that the 21st century has ushered readers to read online news, publications are starting to focus on analyzing their readers and changing up their editorial strategies, which will be the subject of one of the panels at the International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ) this year.

ISOJ is an annual conference where editors, producers, executives and academics from around the country and the world gather to discuss the changing field of online journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. ISOJ returns with its 15th Nconference on April 4 and 5.

This year’s program will feature a panel on readership analytics and editorial strategies. Speakers include Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University; James G. Robinson, director for news analytics at New York Times; Higinio O. Maycotte, CEO and founder at Umbel; Nicolas White, CEO and founder at The Daily Dot; Todd Cunningham, director of the Media Impact Project at the University of Southern California; and Melody Kramer, digital strategist and associate editor at NPR.“We have had sessions dedicated to data journalism in previous years, focusing on how data has been used to improve reporting and storytelling,” said University of Texas journalism professor Rosental Alves, founder and director of ISOJ. “This time, however, we want to discuss how news organizations are using data to better know their audience.”

One of the panelists, James G. Robinson, explained the importance of readership analysis and its effects online at The New York Times.

“It’s very important that we find ways to integrate analytics into the newsroom’s daily decision making process,” Robinson said. “This doesn’t mean we’ll start chasing clicks or turning our daily news report into a page view-based popularity contest. We want analytics to complement our editorial judgment, not replace it.”

Another panelist, Higinio O. Maycotte, CEO and founder at Umbel and also a third-time ISOJ attendee, shared his thoughts on the problem of digital media companies in understanding audiences.

“Most of digital media companies outsource their ad sales to Google and hundreds of other companies that sell and deliver ads,” Maycotte said. “Not only has this commoditized digital advertising, but has created an information asymmetry that has left the sell side in the dark in terms of understanding their audience.”

Robinson explained another problem that publications experience in analyzing data in the newsroom.

“It’s easy to get seduced by complicated statistical techniques, fancy interfaces or buzzwords like ‘big data,’” Robinson said. “The best analyses start with examining a simple hypothesis, assumption or habit. Even just looking at an everyday newsroom decision and asking ‘Why do we do it this way?’ often leads to profound insights.”

At The New York Times, Robinson shared the thinking process that led staff to investigate in finding a solution to this problem.

“The most frequent question we get is ‘How did my story do?’ That’s a pretty easy question to answer with a single aggregate number, but without context that number is pretty much meaningless,” he said. “The usual follow-up question: ‘Is that good?’ is much more fascinating, and has led us to think differently about what makes a story successful. Perhaps it’s not how much traffic a story got, or whether it made the most e-mailed list, but whether it reached the right people. We’ve been lucky to work with newsroom staff who are enthusiastic and curious about investigating these sorts of questions.”

In a world where knowing your audience is key to success, this group of panelists will provide insight into how publications and digital media companies understand data on readers and using that data to deliver news.