Changing data analytical tools is difficult but doable for newsrooms

By Stefan ten Teije


Nijmegen, The Netherlands


Since the advent of generative AI, numerous tools have been knocking on the door of the modern newsroom. Once you’re convinced of their utility, the next challenge is deciding how you implement them.

It’s not always easy: Perhaps there’s an existing contract with another software tool that you have to wait out. Maybe there’s a temporary lack of funds. Or it could be the editorial team has just started another project that demands its full focus.

But even if such issues are not a factor, there are still mountains in the way. Often, these are even trickier to overcome, according to smartocto’s sales and strategy manager, Olga Nemčanin.

“I speak with decision makers at media organisations on a daily basis, so I know that it’s hard to get everyone on board for experiments with data or AI driven tools,” Nemčanin said. “They aren’t free, and it feels like a big commitment to make sure people will use them daily. When it comes to editorial analytics, a significant shift is needed — a different view on data usage in journalism.”

Ed Walker, a consultant who worked in a senior central editorial role at the United Kingdom’s largest commercial news company Reach PLC, often led the introduction and roll-out of digital transformation projects. This included introducing new tools to newsrooms.

He recognised the response from newsrooms when a new tool is introduced is often best described as “irritable.” “The first response will be ‘another new thing,’” Walker said. “It can be a struggle to introduce a new way of working, including the technical implementation.”

Journalists focus on something else

It’s also logical: Journalists, in particular, want to protect their independence in all respects. Editors sometimes do not want data dictating where they should invest their time and energy. “They want to talk with people, gather valuable and relevant information, go to events — all the things that journalists do,” Walker said. “They mostly didn’t get into the job to understand the amount of interactions on Facebook or whatever.”

Nemčanin agreed: “It’s kind of nice when you can do certain things on auto-pilot. When that changes, you are quickly inclined to focus on what is no longer possible with the new technology. I experienced this myself when we switched CRM (customer relationship management) systems. But once you see the benefits, you can make significant progress pretty quickly.”

How do you ensure the editorial team quickly embraces a desired tool? Walker and Nemčanin share their key insights and tips.

Find champions

Look for your champions, as Nemčanin calls them. Try to find some kind of ambassador many people admire and who can persuade others.

According to Walker, this could even be someone who is quite sceptical at first: “The enthusiasts are easy to win over. It’s easy to write people off as not being interested in data. Most of the time, it’s a fear or lack of understanding of how it can help. Those people can be the best advocates. Other people might think, ‘if they say so.

Understand technical implications

Get a clear understanding of the technical implications. For example, to give smartocto access to all your data, two lines of JavaScript need to be placed on each page.

“That can be done in a matter of two days. Onboarding, explanation, and implementation take a core group, at most, a few sessions of an hour each. That’s the easy part,” Nemčanin said. “The commitment and effort are needed in the next step, and that is adjusting the workflow, which can be harder. Most of the time, that will take a couple of months, depending on how invested the management team is.”

Start a pilot

Here’s a tip from Walker: If you’re at a large publisher with many titles, then starting a pilot at a fairly new title or one that has just brought in new people might help.

If your organisation is smaller, you can try this “trick” and focus on a single sub-editorial team, such as the sports team or the business team.

Outline a strategy

Your first task should be to set up a clear strategy on paper with the goals of using the tool clearly in mind. You might find you don’t actually need the tool at all, but it also helps to provide the editorial team with a good story.

Here’s Walker again: “Look for the challenges the newsroom is facing. Maybe a goal is to increase the number of newsletter subscribers. If you can show precisely how a tool can help achieve such a goal, there is an incentive to get started with it.”

Acknowledge journalistic realities

Keep in mind what the workflow of a journalistic day looks like. “No one is going to read 17 reports a day,” Walker said. “Each editorial team has its rhythm. It must be adaptable. When is the tool deployable and how does it fit into the schedule of the day or the week?”

An eye on the future

Newsrooms have come a long way. With that in mind, we’ll leave you with this thought from Nemčanin:

“Five years ago, it was really difficult to get media professionals to use data analytics to inform their work. Now, journalists realise the impact they made is relevant for what should be done next. Change comes more naturally to newsrooms that nurture an experimental mindset in their organisation.”

About Stefan ten Teije

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