Data in journalism – the measurement of the SZ – your SZ

A security vulnerability in the iOS operating system caused a sensation in July 2016: several hundred million Apple devices were at risk, a simple multimedia file was sufficient to execute malicious code on the devices. IPhone users could become victims of a hack via iMessage or MMS.

The digital department of the Süddeutsche Zeitung published a report on this in the early evening of July 21. “You should update your operating system for iPhone and Mac immediately,” the message was overwritten. Five short paragraphs, just over 2000 characters – normally hardly worth mentioning.

However, on the evening of the publication alone, the article was viewed more than 150,000 times, an extreme value. The source at that time: unknown – and the excitement in the editorial office was accordingly great. Which channel did so many readers come from, whose origin we couldn’t identify?

Such peculiarities piled up. The number of visits to individual articles increased extremely every week, and the origin of the readership remained unclear at all times. The search for the source finally led to a preset program on Apple devices in which users were shown journalistic content. The selection criteria for which articles could have chances of reach remained obscure. So did the impact on our journalism.

And yet it was important to realize that it was a coincidence. Because we are interested in you. For you as a reader of Süddeutsche Zeitung. Whether you prefer to read large reports or prefer essays, for example. Whether you prefer to watch the Bundesliga coverage or read analyzes of international conferences down to the last line.

All of this is exciting for an editorial team to know. Because for you as a reader, we want to report as intensively as possible on the topics that really move you. Those that concern you in everyday life, for which you need backgrounds, and also about those that you feel entertained with. If we hadn’t realized that some of our articles would be read unusually often by accident, this might have led us to focus on a readership that does not correspond to those who are loyal to us in everyday life.

Of course we don’t want to talk to you by mouth either. Southgerman newspaper, that can and should always mean a challenge, surprise and reporting on matters that are not very popular, but are still important. For society and our coexistence.

The Southgerman newspaper reaches up to 20 million people a month with its digital offerings. They come to us more than 100 million times in the same period to find out about current world events or to read the background. While it was clear decades ago that the content was read where the editors placed it, in the newspaper, the digital space has become a differentiated construct of publications and distribution structures, the knowledge of which is essential.

We still reach many, especially loyal and interested readers via the homepage. However, an enormous number of people also come to us via search engines, especially Google, if they want to get specific information. And in addition to the already classic social networks such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, more and more apps and offers have entered the market in recent years that do not create journalistic content, but do disseminate it. Services such as Upday, for example, the Pocket Recommendations in Firefox, Flipboard, Sony News, Microsoft News, News Republic (an app by the Chinese company Bytedance) or the Apple offer already described.

In order to know who you are and what you are interested in, as editors we have various options. On the one hand, of course, a wealth of experience through decades of work with content and journalism. On the other hand, countless conversations, letters to the editor and feedback on the newspaper, homepage or digital edition.

Of course, we also work with data. Half a dozen colleagues from the analysis team take care of collecting the correct data, preparing it and using it in a meaningful way in cooperation with the editorial team and product teams. For example, we measure how often articles are called up. Or how long it is spent on individual content. We are also interested in the ways in which readers find us, whether they come back or when a subscription is concluded. Not a matter of course on an individual level, data protection is extremely important to us in all of this, but anonymized and as a group. Web analysts, data scientists, statisticians and even experts in machine learning work together to make data readable and ultimately usable.

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Editorial data work means dealing intensively with topics and the readership – and tracking down small clues in tons of numbers.

(Photo: SZ)

Why are we doing this?

Anyone who misses the world tries to make it more understandable. Less to leave them to the realm of the mystical, but to try to understand them better. To enable a different perspective on them that can hold new insights.

This is how we quantify, sum up, categorize and analyze – all with the aim of broadening our horizons and penetrating deeper into the relationships that make our world what it is.

It is all too understandable to be skeptical about the quantification of the world. Because tracking is associated with negative experiences and ideas in many ways. Terms such as metric, benchmark, performance indicator or accountability started their triumphal march in the management literature of the 1960s. As a megatrend, they have influenced and shaped countless areas of society in the past decades – be it education, health care, security or even journalism.

The urge to measure every little detail and make change representable results from a rapidly changing world. The faster and more fundamental this change takes place, the stronger the desire for objective criteria, orientation and confirmation of your own actions. At the very moment when the solutions of existing elites are no longer trusted, data should provide a hold.

We feel the effects of the data-infused world in everyday life. Be it annoying advertising that follows us for weeks on the Internet, or the question of the discount card at the supermarket checkout. Other examples, such as targeted campaigns or, in extreme cases, surveillance apps like those in China, which create comprehensive movement profiles, make us shy away from measuring our own behavior – even if it is done in accordance with data protection and anonymously.

Editorial work with data has nothing to do with all of this. Findings about which articles, topics and formats are read more or less intensely simply serve to better understand how the readers’ ideas correspond to our reality. In other words, we don’t want to know better than you what you are interested in.

As editors, we work data-informed, not data-driven. Data does not dictate which topics we deal with and what we report on. They only provide information, food for thought and can be a support in everyday topic planning as well as medium and long-term journalistic development. Data and numbers are of course only one form of evidence. Experience, feeling, theoretical constructs and qualitative research also play a decisive role.

Basically, data is always just a tool. Data itself does not provide answers and solutions, nor are they superior to the long-term experience of an editorial team. They can provide information about whether your own expectations correspond to reality. You can give feedback and be a compass to go your own way more purposefully.

We want to create the best possible journalism for our readers with all the information we have gained. Data help us with that, it is undisputed. But not just Data. “Not everything that counts can be counted – and not everything that can be counted counts,” wrote sociologist William Bruce Cameron in his 1963 book, Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking. It is a quote that we should keep in mind when we measure the world.