Journalists need consumer data to regain market share

By Mindy Tan
Medill News Service

At a time when Facebook and Google are claiming 89 cents of every new dollar of digital advertising, journalists must “reclaim” their relationship with users by leveraging consumer data to better package content for them, according to Michael Shane, global head of digital innovation at Bloomberg LP.

“For most people, the internet is essentially some combination of Google and Facebook, probably with a little Amazon thrown in,” said Shane at the opening keynote address of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers spring conference in Seattle.

“They have in many sectors, topic areas of publishing, usurped our relationship with the audience. That’s what we have to reclaim,” Shane said.

Bloomberg's Michael Shane and ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism's Retha Hill talk about innovating in the age of platforms
Bloomberg’s global digital innovation chief Michael Shane and ASU Walter Cronkite School of Journalism’s Retha Hill talk about innovating in the age of platforms

The key to doing this is collecting and understanding audience data.

At a tactical level, Shane said, reclaiming your audience means first-party data which includes: who they are; where they work; what their role is; how much money they make; where they live; and what they are interested in.

Rather than trying to compete at scale or trying to compete by pure speed, and both of those are important, I think you’re going to start seeing publications start to build journalism products and also user products that rely on registration, that rely on users telling us who they are, and telling us what they care about,” Shane said.

Such information, even if anonymous, should be treated as the “holy of holies,” said Shane. “You have to earn it. And that means we have to build experiences that are good enough and special enough to motivate people to give us that information.”

At The Dallas Morning News, collecting data, such as where their online traffic comes from, helps them decide what content to focus on. So when faced with the choice of banking on a story that went viral or a story that achieved less than a tenth of the clicks but whose readership was mostly local, the answer was simple, said Business Editor Paul O’Donnell.

“We’re really focused on re-engaging our local audience,” said O’Donnell.  “We talk a lot in our newsroom about the importance of return visitors to our site, who are also the ones with the highest potential to become our subscribers.”

Packed room at the Opening Keynote - A conversation with Michael Shane: Innovating in the Age of Platforms
Packed room at the SABEW 2017 spring conference’s opening keynote: A conversation with Michael Shane: Innovating in the Age of Platforms

A localized organization has an “incredible advantage” at reclaiming their audience because of built-in scarcity, said Shane.

“Whether you’re in an industry-specific publication or it’s geographical, having those built-in limitations can keep you on the rails and keep you really disciplined and also because you don’t have to worry about being all things to all people,” Shane said.

“Unlike Google and Facebook, you can build products or plan editorial strategies or editorial features, or sales strategies that are totally and completely tuned for your area and your audience,” he added.

Audience members asked about the rise of  “quick takes” and other alternative formats that might be shifting the emphasis away from rigorous reporting.

“Generally, shorter works on the internet, but the key is still to make sure it’s your reporting and it matches your newsroom. Going short just for the sake of short is no good.”

He boiled it down to three key questions that should be asked: Which part of your audience is this for? How big is the audience and does their size and level of engagement match your goals? Does the reporting match your newsroom?

Al Lewis, business editor at Houston Chronicle, said his biggest takeaway from the conference session is that resorting to clickbait is a losing strategy.

“A lot of newspapers, especially as they’ve lost resources, have been drawn in to clickbait,” said Lewis, whose Houston Chronicle is also behind Chron, a site that features such headlines as  “Walking barefoot at gym led to gross foot infection,” with an accompanying photo gallery.

“Google and Facebook are getting all the advertising so the only future that we have in this business is to build subscribers who pay for quality content because advertising is just going to be pennies per click and Facebook and Google are going to get all the money,” Lewis said.

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