Creating a data-positive newsroom culture requires concessions to journalists

By Greg Piechota

INMA

Oxford, United Kingdom

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Last week, at the INMA Product and Data For Media Summit, author Caroline Carruthers was asked about how to help form a data-positive culture in the newsroom.

“When it comes to creative people, you’d better ask how to use data to free yourself from doing things that you don’t want to do rather than trying to make data do the job for you,” she said.

Across the world, newsrooms have been adopting data and metrics to make the work of journalists more effective and efficient. The change has been accelerated by: 

  • The economic pressures on efficiency. 

  • Effectiveness-boosting management ideas such as customer-centricity. 

  • Advances in technologies, making work in the newsrooms easier to measure. 

Still, the pace of the change varies due to the newsroom’s managers and staff’s scepticism, shortage of skills, or internal processes and resources. Sceptics believe knowledge and creative work requires autonomy to produce quality outputs, and worry that metrics and algorithms undermine professional judgment and artistic creativity. 

“A lot of times people don’t like data because they don’t understand it, or we turn it into something big and scary. It is especially true with very creative people,” said Carruthers, co-author of The Chief Data Officer’s Playbook with Peter Jackson. 

“The best way is to use data to free these people from the mundane and boring, so they can actually use their talent and skill in the best way possible,” she suggested. 

The challenge

In a newly published book All the News That’s Fit to Click, Rutgers University Professor Caitilin Petre argued that metrics are a form of managerial surveillance and discipline. Their adoption in recent decades followed the principles of scientific management, or factory work optimisation techniques, as imagined 100 years ago by an engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor

In the worst-case scenario, Professor Petre found, metrics could facilitate the regime in which “journalists are reduced from expert arbiters of news worthiness to mere executors tasked with unquestioningly following the dictates of quantified representations of audience popularity.”

Are modern newsrooms really like factories? There’s a difference. “Journalists possess professional status, ample reserves of cultural capital, and a highly visible public platform — resources they can mobilise to resist metrics-driven performance evaluation if they choose to do so,” observed Professor Petre.

To avoid resistance, she reported, data initiatives and products gained journalists’ trust and acceptance by concessions to journalist’s autonomy.

Inspiration

At the INMA Summit, Caroline Carruthers pointed to international efforts to develop COVID vaccines as an example of a recommended approach.

U.S.-based Moderna used data and machine learning to accelerate the pace of research on proteins that train a body to respond to the virus. Automation helped them increase the number of tests of different sequences of the mRNA proteins from about 30 a month to about 1,000 a month without significantly more resources.  

“Humans are really good at creativity and flexibility and insight, whereas machines are really good at precision and giving the exact same result every single time and doing it at scale and speed,” explained Moderna’s Chief Data Officer Dave Johnson in an interview with the M.I.T. Sloan Management Review.

“What we find [to be] the most successful projects are where we kind of put the two together — have the machine do the parts of the job that it’s good at [and] let the humans take over for the rest of that,” said Johnson.

Case studies

News publishers ran initiatives that increased efficiency and effectiveness of the work of journalists, while preserving their autonomy.

  • Content reviews helped spot what’s not worth doing: Funke Media Group in Germany analysed supply and demand of articles to help identify topics for which “we generate a lot of content which are not well received by our readers.”

  • Algorithmic text generation expanded coverage saving reporters’ time: NDC Media Group in Sweden automated generation of reports from 60,000 local football matches, using data on results, pictures, and quotes crowdsourced from coaches.

  • Automated curation boosted effectiveness saving editors’ time: The Globe and Mail in Canada handed over curation of its home page and social channels to an AI system so its editors could focus on finding and telling stories.

The bottom line

Don’t use data to tell journalists what to do, but rather show them what is not worth doing. Automate the mundane and boring tasks to free their time and energy, and use their judgment and creativity to do things machines cannot.

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About Greg Piechota

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