Data and revenue: do you believe in pots of gold?

Photo: @CarloFelice
Photo: @CarloFelice

 Gregor Aisch (New York Times), Mirko Lorenz (Datawrapper), Sharon Moshavi (ICFJ) and Raju Narisetti (News Corp) discuss when, where and how data can generate revenue for news agencies.

When it comes to journalism, we’re in the age of the digital for sure – whether  people like to admit it or not! But as we strike out into the digital landscape, several pressing questions get pulled up along the way. One of the big ones (possibly even the biggest) that gets brought up time and time again is this:

How does it make money?

With print circulation dropping consistently, news belongs to the Internet. We just need to find a way we can afford to keep putting it there. One of the biggest and most versatile aspects of online journalism, that has come to the fore in recent years, is data journalism. So where better to look for a source of revenue than in the data…


How to make money from data

“Touching on the question that all journalists around the world have”, begun Mirko Lorenz, who works at Datawrapper,”when the old business models are failing, what are the options to replace them?” Journalism needs to find new ways of creating revenue to sustain itself. However, Lorenz warns that caution should be exercised in this line of thinking – “If we start putting a price tag on every act of journalism we lose what journalism is all about.”

“So when we’re talking about making money, it’s not saying that this article is more valuable than the other… that’s not how it’s going to work out.”

Lorenz listed three areas where he thinks news service should be looking to make profits – investment, editorial and services. The first is more to do with the business sides of news organisations working in the background to make sensible long term investment that will give them financial security in the future – Lorenz uses the example of the Guardian’s billion pounds sale of their stake in Auto Trader UK. The second point is about subscriptions, advertising and the like – revenue generated off the back of quality online context – like the New York Times  growing numbers of online subscribers.

The last point is more complex. It’s about asked what users really want, and how money can be made by providing it for the. Lorenz used the example of Wirecutter (a product reviews site affiliated with Amazon that gets revenue for each Amazon sale of an items they feature) who simply write plain text reviews and comparisons of electronics products.

But moving on from comparing wide-screen TVs… Sharon Moshavi, the vice president of new initiatives at the ICFJ (International Centre for Journalists), spoke about data-driven journalistic services that the ICFJ have worked on that have been, to varying degrees, effective sources of revenue.

These have included projects in Africa spanning country’s data on the cost of medicine to provide people with a tool that checks they aren’t being overcharged, as well as tools to check the license of their local doctor is real and in date.

These services are designed to help people make decisions. Moshavi thinks these services are absolutely “the role of news organisations”, that journalists should use data to address the issues in people’s lives – “the questions that keep them up at night.”

However, like News Corp senior vice-president Raju Narisetti said “the bad news is… I’m here to say that there are no pots of gold in our business, and as you all know rainbows are temporary.”


How NOT to make money from data

Narisetti thought that a lot of conversation about data focuses too much on the journalistic end of things. There is some amazing journalism being produced, but “there are significant challenges to taking journalism-led data projects and trying to make sheer money of them…” Arguing that the journalism industry has failed to monetise the data that our own audiences are actually providing us, Narisetti said “there may be, if not pots, some gold at the end of that data.”

Part of the challenges newsrooms face is that they tend to create great journalism…then at the end of it they might think, “hmmm, maybe we can sell this!” They then go to the business side of the news organisation to convince them there’s a market – and the business side usually doesn’t think so. Journalists need to “include them [the business side] when you’re mapping out the project”, said Narisetti.

New York Times graphics editor Gregor Aisch has been involved in creating some of the amazing journalism Narisetti was talking about. His team does pretty much all of the New York Times graphics – a fairly big task! However, the closest they have got to creating a money-making product was a line of jokey mugs with graphics on the side.

“The main reason why we usually do not deal with the question of how to make money is that the New York Times is traditionally split between the business side and the newsroom side. I work on the newsroom side, so we spend money and the business side makes the money!”


So what’s the problem?

There are many issues with using data journalism and data services as sources of revenue. For a start – as one questioner in the audience pointed out – there are ethical concerns in gathering large amounts of data on say, the allegiances and deals of a country’s politicians…then building at that information into a searchable online tool and them making that available to whoever is willing to pay for it. As Moshavi herself said, there are clearly ways that could it be misused.

There’s also privacy issue of using audience browsing data…and the dangerous possibility of actually selling that data in some form as well. Plus services like Wirecutter are surely susceptible to a bit of bribery encouraging them to review that one TV a bit more favorably than the another. Narisetti argued it all comes down to trust. Not just building audiences’ trust in news outlets, but also the surety of editor’s trust in their writers to follow ethical codes.

So is data the way of sustaining journalism for generations to come? Certainly it has great potential, and amazing innovation has been done so far using the tools at hand. But as for a pot of gold…we can only wait and see where the rainbow leads.