Only fools ignore data

The following is the script of a speech Hal Crawford gave at a lunch for the judges of the Walkley Awards on Friday, 11 October. “Chris” refers to the federal secretary of the Media Alliance, Christopher Warren.

As Chris mentioned, we started a project to study the most shareable news stories in the world. I’ll talk more about that later. Something we found as we studied the stories though, was very interesting, and made explicit something that hadn’t been explicit in my mind before. Probably most of you knew it already.

It was a kind of story structure, or attribute, where the opposite of what you expect to happen happens. It’s a story with a contradiction in it, or at least the undermining of a stereotype. We called this kind of story “a reverse”.

An example is the story of a very fat woman who wanted to get fatter. In fact, she had the ambition to be the world’s fattest woman. Normally fat people want to lose weight. That story may not be very deep, but it was very widely shared on social networks.

Another one, the most shared story ever to appear on ninemsn, was the story of a frog that hitched a ride on a snake to escape floodwaters. That was a picture sent into us by a reader. It’s a reverse because normally snakes eat frogs.

I say you probably already know about the reverse, because after all, the classic advice to young reporters is “Dog bites man” is no story, but that “Man bites dog” works.

Today I am standing in the middle of my own personal reverse.

Not long ago I was making snide remarks about Walkley Awards judges in print.

Now here I am. Toasting the judges of the Walkley Awards. Toasting us.

Let me explain.

I wrote a piece for Mumbrella with the incendiary title “Why quality journalism should be left to die”. Can you see the issue now? Particularly in light of Chris’s earlier comments.

But let me dispel the tension in the room. I don’t want quality journalism to die, I was making an argument against subsidies and government intervention. The emphasis was on the word “left” in the headline.

Anyway, I wrote that piece and got involved in a discussion with David Higgins. He made a point that if you added up all the traffic of all the Walkley Awards winners over the past decade it would be pretty depressing. I countered, in another piece, that if that were true then the fault lies not in the audience but in the judges.

The essence of my argument was not that stories that win awards should win them based on popularity – not using traffic as a judging criteria – but that it was hard to argue that a story that no one wanted to read was a really great story. How can a story that nobody reads be important?

So many people disagree with me.

I come across regularly, also within my own organisation, people who subscribe to what I call the dismal dichotomy. This is the belief that on one hand you have the worthy stories that are dull and doomed, and on the the other, popular stories that are rubbish. They come to equate importance with tediousness and popularity with crap. A terrible, depressing view of the world. In the end it undermines democracy.

Now let me tell you about that project I started with my colleagues at ninemsn, Andy Hunter and Dom Filipovic.

It’s called Share Wars.

What we did was we built a machine, and that machine went out and collected the world’s stories. It’s really quite easy, Dom tells me. We scraped the homepages of 118 news sites around the world and we got the addresses of the stories and then we asked the social networks how many people had shared those stories and we put all that data in a database.

We covered all the big guys – the New York Times, the Daily Mail – and 13 big Australian publishers and some non-English publishers as well.

At the end of three months we had a list of 1.3 millions stories ordered by popularity on social networks.

What you discover when you scratch the surface of that list undermines the dismal dichotomy. What you discover is actually very optimistic for someone who believes in news. The set of most shared stories bares a relationship to the traditional news values I learned in the newsroom of The West Australian.

Good, solid breaking news rates. New information rates. It’s not all conventional wisdom – sex doesn’t rate – but, and this is the most surprising thing for me, issues based pieces do very well.

Rights articles, particularly articles on gay rights and dangerous dog breeds, abound. Most surprising of all was the prevalance of political yarns. Not speculation. Not insiders having a chat among themselves. That stuff doesn’t work. But real political happenings are widely shared on social networks. That is very counterintuitive to anyone who has tried to maximise traffic to a website in the past 10 years.

Now why does it matter? Why is the popularity of stories on social networks important?

Because social networks are driving significant amounts of traffic to publishers. And when I say “traffic” what I really mean is people. Social networks are distribution channels. News on ninemsn has up to 15% of its traffic coming from Facebook, for example. Facebook may fade, but the mechanism of traffic coming from social networks is not going to go away. If anything, it will become more and more important.

Back to the Walkleys.

Here was my experience of the judging process. I was about to go on leave, returning to Perth to go fishing at Rottnest Island. The day before I go on leave I am handed a 5kg postpak envelope, enormous, full of entries.

Has anyone here been a marker? A marker of university or school papers? If you have, you’ll be familiar with a particular psychological journey.

It starts with bravado. You look at the pile of papers and you think “no problem, I’ll have that knocked off in a day.” That changes to despair, after you have spent the first six hours on one paper. Resignation follows despair, as you get on with the job. Finally, growing confidence, confidence that ends in an intoxicating sense of infallibility as you despatch papers in a flurry of red ink. At the end you putting in a tenth the time and feeling 10 times more certain you are right.

So I pull out the first entry. Paper and CD-ROM. Weird, but what the hell. I am on Rottnest. I load the thing up and I’m captivated. I ended with tears in my eyes. I can’t tell you more than that.

I went through the pile and I had that experience again and again. Not always weeping. Sometimes spellbound with admiration. Sometimes breathless. Sometimes angry. When Rottnest was done and I got to the moderation part, with my fellow judges, we came together like a fluid machine designed to judge. I’m not joking. Designed to judge. It probably has something deep to do with editors, that facility for judging. Everyone and everything, right?

We agreed that a key principle for evaluating an interactive project is that it should not simply be a brilliant way of hiding vast amounts of work. Another principle – and this is wisely incorporated into the category we judged – is that it is not about whizbangery, but about storytelling.

We got our result. It had been an invigorating experience.

Those stories I judged represented at their best a new media age. This new age is an age of discovery – the discovery of the audience. I am seeing it all around, editors are talking about it. Garry Linnell mentioned it the other day when he was tearing strips off some poor woman in Mumbrella. Did you read it? It was like seeing someone being eaten alive.

In this new age only fools ignore the data, and only fools surrender themselves to the data. The best publishers have always been hungry for information about their audience, but until the last decade they’ve being operating in an information vacuum.

What the experience of judging has taught me is that, again, this world we are entering is one we should be excited about.

To return to one final reverse – a story I haven’t yet seen, but one I’m looking forward to. The headline reads: “digital news saves journalism”.

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Hal Crawford

About Hal Crawford

Hal Crawford is ninemsn's Editor-in-Chief. He began his career at The West Australian newspaper and has taught journalism at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Twitter: @halcrawford

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