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The best content blends insight and intuition

Slack is a great tool, not just for day-to-day, work-related communication, but for colleagues to share relevant content and ideas.

The Globe and Mail has dozens of channels on the platform, ranging from project management to discussion groups to lunch menus. One of those channels is tagged #future-of-news, and it’s always interesting to drop in on it to see what people are sharing.

A thread unspooled around this Quartz story on the continuing tug-of-war by publishers between data and journalistic intuition when making decisions on story ideas and promotion.

Media organizations need to run a mix of ‘populist’ stories to attract a bigger audience, plus hard news and other stuff that’s ‘good for you’ because it’s their value proposition. Not everyone will agree with the results: it’s impossible to please all the people all the time. It’s tough enough to please some of them some of the time.

Back in the day, I did a stint as the Globe’s website editor. The newsroom was making the transition from a curated approach (the ‘Most Popular’ list was the sole trending guide) to one that was increasingly automated (programmed slots, real-time data decision making). That’s when the journalistic-instinct-versus-data conversations began.

I also remember news meetings, in the pre-metrics days, when I’d hear phrases like:

“We know our readers care about this …”

“I was talking to a cab driver and he told me …”

“I was at a party on the weekend and this was the hot topic …”

All of them anecdotal, of course. All of them accepted as legitimate opening salvos because who could argue? Maybe a critical mass of people did care about these things. There were a lot of heads nodding in agreement at those meetings. It baffled me, even at the time, but the hits just kept on coming.

Now we can argue. Which is a good thing. I don’t hear those phrases much any more.

Now we can measure when articles about celebrity gaffes pull larger numbers than daily news hits or investigations. It’s finding and maintaining balance that’s become the hard part. How much should we rely on data to inform the direction and volume of our storytelling, and how much should we rely on instinct?

The quest for balance isn’t restricted to the newsroom. Sales departments have had a hard time landing advertisers to sponsor series on depressing or uncomfortable subjects, but that doesn’t mean reporters will (or should) stop covering tough stories with journalistic merit because they don’t ‘sell.’ That hasn’t changed.

And there’s the rub. A publishing company is a business. It sells information. The tricky part is that journalism, holistically, is not about money. It’s about situations as varied as reporting on and analyzing breaking news, training a skeptical eye on governments and corporations, telling interesting and relevant human-interest stories, and reviewing products and services objectively, to name a few examples.

Readers who come to The Globe and Mail for great writing and reporting are also the readers that advertisers want to sell to. But at the end of the day, we can’t fight the consumer. We need to give people the content they want as well as what we think they need.

Data is a foundation. It provides insights on what Globe and Mail readers respond to, how they discover and engage with our content, and when they like to consume it. We can also use social listening to examine the broader web and discover (not guess!) popular topics of conversations, and who the key influencers are.

The content teams analyze that information then build a house by adding journalistic intuition. Both elements working in harmony are crucial to the organization’s continued success.


Sean Stanleigh is Managing Editor of the Globe Edge Content Studio. Follow him @seanstanleigh

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