News UK uses data to tailor content to young and female readers

By Greg Piechota


Oxford, United Kingdom


Aiming at diversifying readership, news subscription leaders, such as The Times and The Sunday Times in the United Kingdom, no longer view their readers as one whole, but track engagement across a range of audience characteristics and behaviour, including age and gender.

As news subscriptions programmes mature, publishers see further growth opportunities in converting and retaining light-reading subscribers, including young and female readers. 

This strategic shift in newsrooms (which I will discuss in an INMA members-only Meet-Up on Thursday, March 18) starts with a realisation that journalism cannot submit to the tyranny of the majority of subscribers, which often is older than 40 years and male. 

“We can easily attract new audiences, such as younger readers, through marketing but if we don’t offer relevant journalism each day, we are not going to keep these new readers,” said Nick Petrie, deputy head of digital at The Times and The Sunday Times, two national brands of News UK in the United Kingdom.

The publisher knows the age and gender for registered readers and for subscribers, as it explicitly asks for it, and it can infer the data for unknown audiences.

Informed by data, but not led by it: Since 2018, newsrooms of the Times have been tracking engagement with a custom-made analytics platform INCA

At the launch, Nick Petrie set the boundaries for data analytics in a blog: “We believe our newsroom should be informed by data, not led by it. That it should help broaden our understanding of who our readers are and which of our stories resonated. That it should not replace editorial judgment, but augment it.” 

The challenge was what metrics to focus on. Dan Gilbert, director of data, feared counting the number of readers told more about where an article was placed on the Web site or in app than how it resonated with the audiences, and the dwell time was obviously longer, on average, for longer articles. 

Knowing this, The Times wanted to understand how much better or worse articles did than expected, given the context. The solution was to turn each metric into an index that compared the actual figure to expected value derived by a machine learning model from the past performance of similar articles in a similar context.

“We originally presented the indices on a scale from 0 to 200, but we quickly run into trouble with users focusing too much on small differences that were not necessarily meaningful,” explained Gilbert.

Today, the scale is simpler to avoid any confusion: from 1 to 5, where 3 is expected, 4 or 5 is better than expected, and 1 or 2 is worse than expected.

Sophisticated, but sceptical: In Dan Gilbert’s opinion, indices help avoid meaningless comparisons between engagement of readers segments, too. For example, to get a score of 4 for an article in a lifestyle section of The Times, this needs to have more female readers than an article in sports. 

News desks use the insights daily to inform a range of decisions: what stories to commission, how many articles to publish, how to spot clickbait, which headlines to change, which articles to reposition on the page, and so on. For example, Nick Petrie said, an underperforming article on the page might be saved by over-indexing with a priority audience, such as international readers or women. 

Editors view summarised data using dashboards, but they can also explore the performance of single articles with a Chrome extension. They discuss the data during daily meetings.

The insights also help teams review and update audience strategy on an ongoing bases and also for special projects. For example, it helped shape coverage before the UK elections — the team noticed young readers were particularly interested in the Liberal Democrats, so it commissioned more stories.

Sometimes though, a focus on a single segment for a story is not the right approach. For example, a wellness editor aspires to appeal to both young and old demographics.

Gilbert said: “We are desperately trying to be the most sophisticated in numbers, but also staying sceptical.”

Petrie concluded philosophically: “What you measure is what you value.” 

Join Dan Gilbert, his colleague Taneth Autumn Evans, and Eivor Jerpåsen of Amedia in Norway at the INMA Readers First meet-up this Thursday, March 18, at 10 a.m. New York time. We’ll discuss how to use data to better engage young and female subscribers. Register now. 

INMA members can subscribe to the Smart Data Initiative bi-weekly newsletter here.

About Greg Piechota

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