This is the second in a series of posts from media consultant Neil Sharman, looking at how publishers are integrating data use, and some of the challenges they face doing so. You can find the first piece here.

In the first part of this post, I talked about the opportunities publishers are exploring in using data to enhance all areas of their business, yet it isn’t all plain sailing.  The following are very real issues standing in the way of progress:

1. Privacy issues

Initiatives like passive personalisation can spook people unless they know what data is being used and for what purposes.  The increasing debate and awareness of privacy issues will be a growing problem for publishers with data ambitions in the future.

Editors note: This week’s EU court ruling on the ‘right to be forgotten’ is only likely to add to this headaches, though good data management is likely to be key to any process to comly with the rules if publishers are forced to act.

2. How big is big data?  

There’s a lot of talk of overhype. This is based on the fact that publishers don’t have one large set of data but multiple sets of small data. Data concerns will lead to more opt outs and so data sets will decrease.  This is not census data by any means and that makes it harder to understand and draw meaningful findings from it. 

As Tom Betts says, it often outlines the “what” but not the “why”.  For the latter he uses conventional market research.

3. Insight takes time – and money

Amazing insights rarely sit on the surface; you need to pan for gold. Tom Betts talked about the trap of mistaking cause and effect. It also takes time to get data into a format from which insights can be found. 

The Sacramento Bee’s car dealer will have taken a long time to produce and probably uncovered only a handful of useful insights (they didn’t say if it lead to more ad revenue). 

The CNN maps will also have taken time.  Eight out of ten CNN info-graphics are sponsored so that they can even afford to produce them.  Finding a sponsor for a map of dead Americans cannot be easy.  No wonder their other example was a map of the locations where people are happiest.

4. The power of the data hobbyist

Whilst investing in data journalism is a huge cost for under-resourced publishers it is a small cost for individuals spending their own time on it.

Bertrand Pecquerie of the Global Editor’s Network spoke about the large proportion of award winning data journalists who said they had to do it in their own time. Amateur data journalists are also setting up respected websites that began as hobbies. 

Peter Bale, MD of CNN said traditional journalists who aired opinions based on very little proof were being embarrassed by a new breed, often outside the core profession, drawing more solid conclusions from data. 

5. The volume of content needed to feed social media and create targeted content  

Jimmy Maymann, CEO of the Huffington Post said they create 1,600 new articles a day because “social media has changed the pace of the news site”. 

At last year’s NewsWorks Shift conference Tony Gallagher, then editor of The Daily Telegraph said the demands of the web meant he produced 600 articles a day of which a third made it to print. 

Understanding how to use The Stream of social media is one thing but having the resources to generate content at the rate it consumes it is quite another.  At Digital Media Strategies 2014 Duncan Painter, CEO of Top Right said it was madness that journalists were the first to be made redundant when the need for quality content is so high. 

6. Solving new problems but not the original, underlying ones

Behavioural targeting, native advertising crafted for social media and the avoidance of inappropriate contexts might prevent digital ad costs being driven down further but they won’t return scarcity to media inventory. Without scarcity ad agencies often need to invest too much time and money per media property for these customisations.

Group M’s Interaction report 2014 concludes, “It is for now at least possible that the dividend of reduced wastage is being matched or offset by the cost of customisation and personalisation”.

7. Counterintuitiive and deferred gratification

Deeply mined data driven insights can seem counter intuitive and mean missing out on instant gratification. This is about the kinds of culture shift involved in getting publishers to NOT focus on huge page view numbers. Dunnhumby stressed the importance of getting data into the eco-system of the business and making it part of the language used between CMO, CFO and CEO. 

If that was a challenge for retailers it will be a bigger challenge for publishers for whom stock and revenue are less clearly linked.  Of all the issues he faced, Darrel Kunken, Director of Market Analysis at the Sacramento Bee said it is the cultural issue that is the biggest.


Nobody said it was easy. Data is certainly part of the solution but it isn’t a silver bullet. Rather it will offer small advances, hard fought and expensive. Darcey and Miller might be the Generals of Fleet Street but this is still trench warfare. Their data teams will rely on investment in their operations but also in the creation of the sort (and volume) of content that their data tells them is required to make those advances.  Even ad revenues that are data driven will not cover that investment anytime soon.

Neil Sharman is a research and insight consultant who has worked with media brands including News UK and The Telegraph. You can find his website here.

Image via Flickr courtesy of notbrucelee used undera Creative Commons licence