Nieman Foundation at Harvard
Postcards and laundromat visits: The Texas Tribune audience team experiments with IRL distribution
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE

Getting past the data paradox

“Our future as an industry lies in our ability to tap into the resources and empirical insights that Big Data offers without eroding the trust of our users.”

A perfect storm has been brewing for 2014, but don’t worry there’s no thundersnow. It’s the data revolution that’s already ripped through e-commerce, sports, and politics, and it’s ready to sweep through news.

adrienne-debigareWe’ve already seen Big Data touch some aspects of journalistic life. There are data scientists at the Times and elsewhere focusing on reader behavior to help maintain or build readership. Trove just recently split off from The Washington Post to focus on personalized news full time. But there’s so much more we could be doing: We’re barely scratching the surface of the data that’s available for analysis. The content and experiences we might develop from the data that news organizations could gather passively from their subscribers — through the host of connected devices that the public continues to integrate into daily life — is a treasure trove of behavioral insight. All of that juicy, juicy data would allow everyone in the news pipeline — from user to advertiser — to find more value in their participation with the media landscape.

Admittedly, there are several issues with this master plan, not the least of which is the public’s concern over data privacy. In the wake of the Snowden affair, I’m sure these concerns will only continue to inflate. To put this in perspective, according to one Pew survey, people are actually more concerned with advertising agencies tracking their habits than the government.

The biggest problem with this fact is media companies are partially supported by ad dollars. The public increasingly sees advertisers as evil, shadowy villains trying to use an individual’s behavior against them, coercing them into spending their life savings on a year’s supply of diet aids or male enhancement drugs. And so, by extension, the public is wary of the media’s attitudes towards data privacy. Organizations will first have to figure out how to extract themselves from this quagmire before they can convince the public to offer up their networked behavior for predictive analysis. The good news is that studies have shown people are more likely to share more data when they are asked to opt-in and that they may actually value contextual, targeted advertising. News organizations are fighting an uphill battle in the search for meaningful data, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

If privacy concerns are met, the world is an organization’s data-oyster. The Internet of Things, the Quantified Self movement, wearable tech: The objects associated with these buzzwords are all now source points — along with the organization’s traditional web and mobile presence — for rich data that could yield a plethora of unknown unknowns about our subscribers. Computational social scientists are already using these kind of data to improve employee productivity, analyze disaster response, and yes, even predict that a woman is pregnant before she knows. The biggest hurdle is maintaining and continuing to build trust between the consumer and the organization.

So fast forward to the time we solve the data paradox. Media organizations are now able to use an individual’s behavior to granularly target their news experience across a range of connected devices. Subscribers are happy that they no longer have to check four different news outlets to get a comprehensive view of current events. Their data isn’t being broadcast or sold to the highest bidder, and they know it. Maybe they’re even allowed to opt-in to levels of data sharing! The ads consumers must see (because everyone is well aware that advertising is inescapable) are offered contextually and at times that are useful to them. And advertisers are happy, because the likelihood of each impression becoming a click has skyrocketed, even if the ads are being shown less often and in fewer places. It’s a venerable newstopia!

Obviously, this is a vast oversimplification of a fair data future, but reality may not end up looking much different. The bottom line is that our future as an industry lies in our ability to tap into the resources and empirical insights that Big Data offers without eroding the trust of our users. It’s a tall order, but absolutely achievable if we’re willing to be take our place as innovators.

Adrienne Debigare is the new media catalyst for GlobeLab at The Boston Globe.

Updating regularly through Friday, December 20