For an industry closing out its second decade of crisis, there was a palpable optimism at the recent Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) conference in San Francisco. This year has seen the big-budget launches of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, Ezra Klein’s Vox.com and the New York Times’ The Upshot. IRE was packed with reporters eager to learn how data visualization and other technologies could make them better storytellers, drive traffic and win prizes. From the windowless hotel basement where our sessions took place, you could see a world in which serious news businesses could regain control of their destinies.
It might have been equally enlightening to get credentialed for Google’s annual I/O conference across the street. Inside, the search giant was talking about how to pull and push data from users’ phones, homes, cars, and bodies. They would use that data to do what Google always has: getting the right ads in front of the right people at the right time and making tons of money.
It seems like every newsroom in the country is taking a swing at data journalism. But the business of data—what Google does-–could ultimately be much more important to the news media’s future success. And a wave of new competitors seem to understand that better than the legacy media ever will.
Listening to the editors, reporters and news executives at IRE, I heard a passion for two things: great reporting and how to present it online. Traditionally journalists don’t participate in their company’s advertising sales and IRE devoted only a few sessions to how the business of journalism is changing. Digital tools enhance journalism, but reporters’ jobs may depend more on whether their companies can align themselves with how readers and advertisers use the Internet.
A walk around the Marriott space revealed the unique visitor and page view-boosting apps you usually find at IRE and its sister conference, NICAR: One paid service called Caspio, which claims 80 percent of the country’s largest newspaper sites as customers, emphasizes creating evergreen charts out of public data. Databases of public-sector salaries and the results of health department restaurant inspections do particularly well, CEO Frank Zamani says. Jeffrey Raper, a manager at Local Media Group, which runs several community newspaper outlets, said these kinds of simple projects routinely generate 10 or 20 times the traffic of a traditional article. That will help boost a news site’s numbers…until someone at the I/O conference integrates restaurant inspection data into Google Maps.
Indeed, businesses at IRE have already begun commodifying data visualizations: A free service called FindTheBest lets journalists pep up their stories with simple charts based on a trove of data, ranging from weather and population stats to stock charts. Noah Greenberg, a company representative, called it the Shutterstock of data, namechecking a company notorious for bland photography.
There were some more inspiring examples. A company called Esri helps news outlets to create customized maps like the one the Seattle Times used to show the Oso mudslide. The feature gives the status-–"missing," "deceased," "other"—of people living in the affected area and links to short obituaries.
The Oso project, which took a week to complete, fuses digital tools with journalism’s public service mission. But the map page does not have any advertising.
Eric Ulken, the Seattle Times’ digital product manager, said the hope is that data visualization helps "people make sense of information and gives them a reason to stay with us and come back." The Times, which won a Pulitzer in 2012, cannot, however, connect which of its storytelling methods do the best job keeping readers’ attention. "We’re not that good at analyzing our own data," Ulken said. It’s as if Amazon took everything it knows about its customers and used it to write better books.
Media companies have struggled to monetize their high-touch work. Take these prize-winning pieces from USAToday, The Commercial Appeal (Memphis) and The Wall Street Journal. Each labor-intensive project demonstrates the power and potential of online journalism. They’re also unsullied by advertising. By contrast, companies like Buzzfeed and Vox Media, the parent of Vox.com, pride themselves on integrating advertising with their editorial content.
Several sessions at IRE trained journalists on a program called Tableau which enables them to create infographics and other visuals that make data accessible. But when I asked about orgs using data to drive their business, Tableau reps pointed me to a site called AllRecipes for home cooks. AllRecipes takes the data it accumulates about its audience and uses Tableau to create "hot sheets" that tell its advertisers about the latest food trends.
Is that kind of data a potential profit stream for the news media? Probably not. Or at least, not yet. Liang Feng, an analyst with the investment research company Morningstar, said the data collected by even the largest and most sophisticated old-media sites, like the New York Times, is less specific, and therefore less valuable to advertisers, than what other sites gather. Every time you use a search bar on Google, Twitter or Facebook, "you’re providing a direct indication of what you’re interested in," Feng said.
Meanwhile, newspaper sites use their data in the traditional way, Feng said: bragging to advertisers about how prosperous and big-spending their audience is.
Meanwhile, digital native news orgs seems to be shrugging off these concerns and charting a bolder course. Tech blogger Dan Barker recently pointed out that Buzzfeed’s popular quizzes—which sometimes ask very invasive questions in a fun LOL voice—could be mined to determine very personal facts about individual audience members.
Buzzfeed says it’s only interested in aggregate data, not what individuals say. "We analyze the data to try to understand better what our readers are doing on the site," an executive named Dao Nguyen wrote in an email. "This kind of analysis helps us think about why some content goes viral." Buzzfeed then understands which of its ads –- which look a lot like Buzzfeed stories -– go viral.
New-media companies still have a line to walk, of course: When Fast Company profiled the new geo-located Breaking News app in June, GM Cory Bergman stressed that the company wasn’t using users’ geodata to shape editorial coverage or hone in on targeted advertising.
But among legacy media, there’s nothing in the push toward data visualizations that looks likely to change the awful trends of the Internet’s first two decades. The popularity of this new breed of interactive journalism is undisputed—last year this quiz about regional American dialects was the most visited piece of content at NYTimes.com. But it’s not clear whether just increasing traffic is a sustainable business model against companies built to deliver the online audience to advertisers. This is especially true for those traditional media organizations that lack the paper of record’s resources and influence. I left IRE invigorated about what journalism can do and also worried about who’s going to pay for it to be done.
The new crop of media companies, among them Buzzfeed and Vox, have far less experience reporting the news and different ideas of what it should be. That’s fine, and they are each, in their own way, making journalism better. But it’s their understanding of advertising on the Internet that threatens the old order.