Editors note: This is one of 17 case studies featured in INMAs strategic report Making Big Data Smarter For Media Companies, released in December.

News Corp began investing in a new data strategy three years ago — a time when it was difficult to prove ROI. But it has taken a long view of the process and proceeded incrementally, says Paul Cheesbrough, chief technology officer.

As a global media company with holdings in newspapers, magazines, books, online, television, educational projects, and marketing, the publicly traded News Corp tries to use data to “drive synergies and a collective approach” across its properties Cheesbrough says. 

Since that beginning, businesses within the company have reached different levels of maturity, progressing through three phases: 

  1. Collecting and storing first-party data from its various divisions. 

  2. Protecting that data from both those who would compromise its privacy and third parties seeking to use it to their advantage. 

  3. Deriving insights from that data and leveraging them for revenue growth. 

“If you look at the ‘collect, protect, and then leverage,’ those three stages, I think we’re very much now in the tail end of the ‘protect’ piece and much more looking at how we leverage the data more effectively,” Cheesbrough says.

With digital products an increasingly large portion of its portfolio, News Corp has “good access to the usage behaviour … who’s reading what at what time of day on what device,” Cheesbrough says, as well as a benefit many competitors lack: long relationships with readers built by being one of the earliest media companies to require subscriptions for online news.

“We’ve got that one-to-one billing relationship, so when people come to us, they’re not anonymous,” he says. 

In the early stages of expanding its use of consumer data, News Corp hired away one of Google’s top talents in Europe and built a team around him to develop its data strategy along the same lines as such digital powerhouses as Google, Facebook, and Yahoo, Cheesbrough says.

Hiring the right people is key to success. 

“There’s no black-box solution in these areas, that we’ve found anyway, so you have to have smart engineers and technologists and architects who can help piece together the different bits to really optimise how you do it,” Cheesbrough says.

News Corp’s data team has recently grown with the addition of its first chief data scientist. “Her job is really to ask the challenging questions of the data that we’ve now got in order to try to derive insight and any kind of actionable things,” he says.

Each of News Corp’s businesses is establishing its own internal data team to drive its data agenda, Cheesbrough says. Media companies can no longer look at data only for reporting purposes or dig no deeper than a look at pageviews or unique users, he says; now they must examine long-form patterns in the data and ask whether they could be used to create predictive models. 

News Corp uses its first-party data to target both content and ads to readers, and it has worked with Palantir Technologies to examine the relationship between subscriber engagement and churn, learning how to predict — with a high degree of accuracy — whether a subscriber will renew, he says. 

News Corp in 2013 began eliminating third parties embedded in its digital products to protect data privacy and the relationship with customers while deploying across all its businesses its own global ad exchange powered by its first-party data. 

The company is “very pleased” with the revenue generated by its global ad exchange in its first year, Cheesbrough says. “We’ve easily covered the costs of what we’ve been doing on the data front for the past few years,” he says.

Cheesbrough believes that there is still much more News Corp could do with data to better manage subscriber relationships, and much more revenue that could be generated in that area.  

At The Wall Street Journal, where much of its content is behind a paywall but some is freely available, News Corp has tested using a gold key icon to designate stories available only to subscribers to determine whether the key was an enabler or a distracter for converting prospects. 

What did they learn?

“It has no actual impact on whether someone converts, but obviously if you take the key off, it does put more people into the funnel for conversion,” Cheesbrough says. 

Because the different brands within News Corp communicate with one another, they are able to quickly act across the company to share best practices.

Says Cheesbrough: “If we see something that’s working really well in our business in London, and the data tells us that, we export it pretty rapidly across our other businesses to say, make this tweak, or do this, or make that design change to your app or your product. Because here’s the upside that we’re seeing in the business in London and here’s the data that proves that.”

News Corp was early to embrace new technologies, such as cloud computing services and Apache Hadoop, open-source software for storing and processing large data sets. The company used widely available tools to create its own unique platforms tailored to its needs, he says. 

“We don’t use a single vendor or a single platform for any of this sort of stuff,” Cheesbrough says. “We’ve actually got an internal engineering team that uses Amazon. They use the software stack of Hadoop and Hive, and other things like that, and lots of Google’s components together to act as that global collection platform for our data. We use that consistently across all of our businesses now.”

Handling all that data requires a great deal of care. And News Corp uses encryption technology and has staff on the ground in each region where it operates who are focused on data security. It also has a minimum of third parties embedded in its digital platforms and harvesting data from its users.

“We take customer privacy very, very seriously, so what we collect and what we do with the data has to adhere to the terms and conditions in each of our territories and each of the brands that we own,” he says. 

For several years, News Corp newsroom staffs have had access to data about user engagement with the content they generate. 

The future at companies like The Wall Street Journal may be combining market data and usage data, allowing a reader to analyse a specific business or an entire market.

“There’s a real appetite within our newsrooms and within the creative teams,” Cheesbrough says. “You’re pushing on an open door. … There’s a real passion and appetite to start to use this data within stories and within graphics and within the products that we’re publishing each day.”