Media companies should accelerate the pace of becoming data-strong

By Ariane Bernard


New York, Paris


Editor’s note: Ariane Bernard is the new lead of the INMA Smart Data Initiative. She has identified three tentpoles of the initiative this year: personalisation, acquiring and using first-party data, and accelerating the change toward a data-strong organisation. If you would like to subscribe to her bi-weekly newsletter, INMA members can do so here.

One of the strong propositions of news publishing is that clever and well-informed humans should arbitrate the often complicated calls of what is selected to be published and when and how. 

When an editor faced with a breaking news scenario has to decide on what play to give the story and what angle to shape the headline or article, these decisions aren’t made based on A/B tests and careful analysis of user data. It is the entire expertise and experience of the editor that is being called upon to deliver a decision on what to do. In news publishing, experience is the base of many calls and decisions. 

But there, much has changed already and continues to change.

Data offers editors non-biased information on which to make news judgment calls.
Data offers editors non-biased information on which to make news judgment calls.

In our digital world, we can learn things about users and business that our organisations simply could never have learned just 10 years ago. Instinctual decisions have their place, but data represents an opportunity to deliver an even better product to users and even more value to business stakeholders — to say nothing of seeing past our blind spots.

In my conversations with the INMA community last month in preparation for this year’s Smart Data Initiative, pretty much every person I spoke to touched on these topics of cultural change: 

  • How to orient our businesses to the changing paradigm of using data in the decisions we make for the business or the product.

  • Bringing the practitioners of data science, analytics, or user research to equal seats as other key roles of our organisations.

  • Generally infusing our strategies and decisions with data. 

  • Prioritising investment in data capabilities: Operational leaders who cannot get their data project prioritised because they are neither the next big subscription project nor small enough that they can be negotiated on the side of a large technical roadmap.

  • Subject matter experts are concerned that data is often seen as a convenient accessory when it can tell a desirable story and ignored when it seems more contradictory.

  • Mid-career analysts who see their seat at the table reduced to being a provider of PowerPoint when they feel they are sitting on so much useful information — if only they were given a chance to contribute to the right conversations. 

But there are also more hopeful trends:

  • Smaller media organisations making their first hires in data.

  • Organic collaborations and partnerships happening across the organisation between data folks and editorial folks who’ve come to appreciate what they could bring to each other. 

  • Grassroot knowledge-sharing programmes often just born from a casual conversation and the ferment known as human curiosity. 

  • Heads of data being brought to the c-suite as chief data officers. 

  • Data and analytics embedding in cross-expertise teams to de-silo data as “step” in a linear process, bringing this as an equal partner of everyday operations.

To be sure, all stories of change in organisations (or humans) are stories of zig-zags. Part psychology, part tactical; part aspiration, part bet; and partly defensive, too. Are we responding because we see big platforms eat what we considered our lunch? Or do we feel inspired by the product experience of a Netflix that brings to bear all its data in service of a user experience we recognise for its quality? We change because we eventually convince ourselves that we should, and sometimes because change agents have made it harder to resist change rather than embracing it. 

The practice of data is a team sport at media companies.
The practice of data is a team sport at media companies.

This last tentpole item is about what we can teach and learn from each other on a journey where a new practice — data — becomes an integral part not just of our products, but also our organisations.

If you’d like to subscribe to my bi-weekly newsletter, INMA members can do so here.

About Ariane Bernard

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