5 Lessons from the Guardian on Using Publisher Data More Effectively

Chris Moran tells magazine and newspaper publishers how to use their publisher data most effectively

Despite an interweb filled with hugely successful listicles labeled with you’ll never believe -type headlines, “People really, really do want to read great journalism on the internet,” says Chris Moran.

Moran is phasing out of his role as SEO editorial executive at the Guardian, of which he spent the last seven years, and wrote an elegant brain dump on Medium about what he learned. He wrote, “I’ve spent every working moment plugged into the richest realtime data source of any news organization in the world. It’s been very like being in the Matrix but with less kung fu and more Polly Toynbee and Nigel Farage.”

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Some of his takeaways:

1. Know where your people come from.

Moran says, “One of the first challenges I faced at the Guardian was persuading editorial staff that Twitter wasn’t the internet. The fact that most people had no idea that Google sent us 10 times more referral than our favourite social network meant that we were making really bad decisions on a daily basis. Anyone involved in the process of commissioning, producing, publishing and promoting journalism needs to understand our audience and how they come to us.”

2. Bots are smart, but so are humans.

Bots and automation can do a lot of things, even edit articles. But humans make the best choices. A bot might tell you to write about this or that, or it might tell you a certain type of person is reading, but at the end of the day you need to use the data to make educated decisions, not follow it blindly. “The kind of data we can get about how people are clicking on and then going on to read pieces is an essential factor in how we choose to commission and promote journalism. But the fact that it’s easy to come up with thousands of reasons why it would be legitimate or essential to do the opposite of the most obvious response to the data means that we cannot pass responsibility on to an algorithm with any confidence. We are always at our best when data is used to inform rather than lead the editorial process,” says Moran.

 3. Publisher data can be manipulated.

“Data isn’t always the answer to a specific question,” writes Moran. “We need to be careful about framing the questions we ask in a way that skews the data. We need to be clear about where our data is partial. We can’t expect to use historical publisher data to predict a very different future. Data can lead to horrible decisions and pointless delays if it isn’t used judiciously.”

4. Time spent is more important of a metric than publishers make it out to be.

Moran uses the success of Snow Fall, the New York Times’ 2012 interactive “article” project that took months and teams of people, as an example of why time spent is so important, but mostly overlooked. “Snowfall was a critical moment in the development of digital journalism. But this industry has allowed itself to ignore pretty strong signals and instead make convenient assumptions about what makes people read for longer,” says Moran. “Sometimes text alone is the best digital format. Sometimes a picture and a caption is enough. Personally I’d love to see any body handing out awards for interactive formats or visual treatments demanding attention time analytics to be handed over as part of the submission.” We’ve already written about the idea that interactive content will become even bigger in 2017.

 5. It’s not an experiment unless you have a goal.

Moran notes that it’s very easy to say “oh we’ll test it and see how it goes,” but tests should have a clear goal or it’s not a test. “Don’t fall into the trap of allowing yourself to use words like experiment or test when you really mean that you just want to do something. If you’re not setting a target, measuring and then drawing conclusions you’re not engaged in an experiment.”

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