The Impact of Next-Generation Data on the Practice of Journalism

By Alexis C. Madrigal

How having access to more and more data about who is reading your stories when and where could help make journalism better

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Over at GigaOm, Mathew Ingram has a fine write-up about NewsBeat, the journalism-centric product from the real-time analytics company ChartBeat. The thesis is that having more and better data about the traffic to stories may actually be good thing. That runs counter to the conventional wisdom that if journalists know how many people are visiting their stories, they'll immediately start writing about [fill in pop culture reference du jour] and [reference to cats]. Having been in places where journalists had access to data, I completely agree with Ingram that stats don't cause a race to the bottom. It's just another one of a dozen competing concerns that enter into writing the next story (always the next).

People love when you deliver on their conception of your brand.

From an editor's perspective, ChartBeat -- and I'm assuming NewsBeat, though I haven't personally used it -- is fantastic. You can see at a glance how and why something is generating a lot of traffic. The data exposes the plumbing of the Interwebs, all the little mini-networks that pick something up and turn it from something published on your site to something living on the Internet. Traditional analytics were good at letting you see that kind of thing the day after, but the real-time stats let you see it as it's happening. That's both wonderful and addicting and exhausting. ChartBeat is like a drug, or at least it activates the same neurochemical pathways in your brain. Must. Have. More. Data. Who needs food? I got ChartBeat. (So, journalists, be forewarned. Please use ChartBeat responsibly.)

I love analytics because I owe them my ability to write weird stories on the Internet. I like to publish stories that don't seem to belong on a "blog," as many people traditionally have understood the term. We publish 1,500+ word stories reexamining email as a writing tool for professors or laser etching on gravestones or advances in pizza box design. (Our new longreads category collects some of these stories up.) While not all of these pieces generate a lot of traffic, a surprising amount do. It is the success of this kind of long-form technology writing that allows us to keep doing it. The stats prove that we don't need to write like Engadget to drive people to our technology coverage. As importantly, our "traditional" technology coverage rarely drives traffic.

There is so much technology coverage out there on the big topics that it's difficult to rise above the din; the pie is bigger but our slice is smaller. That matters because few sites have the home page heft to drive massive amounts of traffic to an individual story. Maybe the New York Times, a few of the Gawker sites, Yahoo, Drudge, and some others. But everyone else is relying on the social Web to distribute their stories to the people most likely to read them, no matter where they first go for content. If you're lucky, you capture a few of those readers as loyalists who come back time and again. But everybody still needs their stories to move virally.

Our experience could be anomalous. The Atlantic has a strong longform brand. Now, I don't think that many people know media brands with razor sharp precision but The Atlantic, especially for people who know it hazily, seems like the kind of place where long stories make sense. We certainly have run a lot of it over the past 150 years. And in a weird way, I do think that people love when you deliver on their conception of your brand. When Gawker is just perfectly skewering, people eat it up. When the New Yorker runs that thing about how you shouldn't eat bananas that is perfectly hewn. These pieces hit a resonant frequency and take off. We like seeing publications do exactly what it is that they do best and now data can tell you exactly when that happens.

Image: NewsBeat.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/08/the-impact-of-next-generation-data-on-the-practice-of-journalism/242870/