Why we hate data

Above: What do we really know? Image by @lightsource/DepositPhotos.

It isn’t clear why there is such a pervasive national disinterest in making data publicly available or in harvesting, scrubbing and publishing data that rightfully should be in the public domain.

Open Data initiaves have been part of the governance conversation for years now with little actual action backing up that talk.

The governmental disdain for the Central Statistical Office and the lethargy in creating its successor and bringing it into functional existence do not speak well of the institutional attitude toward the publication of information relevant to planning and strategic development.

Even public sector companies that are required to offer up reporting on their activities go for years without offering any publicly available information about their work, their inputs and outputs. 

For politicians, there is the reality that plans that please the population in the short term are far too often a bad idea when extrapolated into long term analysis and often even medium term calculations of any sensible return on investment. 

Information that enables ordinary citizens to challenge the traditional “trust us, we know what we’re doing” attitude of local politicos would be untidy at best…

Having information available that enables ordinary citizens to challenge the traditional “trust us, we know what we’re doing” attitude of local politicos would be untidy at best and potentially destructive to election promises at worst. 

The media, however, have grown very comfortable with publishing and broadcasting as a black box for information, with reporting on audiences ranging from the amorphous calculus of print runs (how many are returned unsold?) to straight-up inventiveness for many broadcast outlets operating before the turn of the century.

I know of (briefly) successful glossy colour magazines that made the invoice for their print runs a key part of their marketing while placing the product on the few magazine shelves available in bookstores then targeting relevant waiting rooms with free copies of the product.

The general public neither saw nor purchased these publications, which inhabited a publishing world unblemished by any dependence on sales to readers. 

For many years, the Marketing Facts and Opinions (MFO) survey was the go-to tool for examining information about the reality of media consumption, though even that measure was limited by the abbreviated scope of sampling afforded by the budgets of the media houses that paid for it. 

The brutal truth is that surveys meant to inform advertiser support and rally reader interest in the product became a winner’s game. 

When the market was small and comfortably dynamic, having an idea of what was actually happening in the market from the audience perspective was useful in planning strategy for product positioning. 

Surveys meant to inform advertiser support and rally reader interest became a winner’s game. 

Once the media market began to explode, it became increasingly clear that the surveys only delivered value for the top two players in each media sector at best, and perhaps offering some positioning advantage for niche players delivering strong numbers in an identifiable market sector. 

For everyone else, it was a bummer, a document that hung over marketing efforts like a bleak pall that never seemed to disperse. 

I was at the Guardian when they decided to stop participating in the MFO survey. The paper had been third in a three-horse race for so long that it must have begun to seem like an exercise in masochism to keep paying for a report that made efforts to win advertising and reader support harder. 

Many of the 30+ radio stations elbowing each other to find a space on the listener’s dial never paid to participate at all, while reaping the benefits of a survey that needed to capture information about the entire industry in order to provide an understanding of what audiences preferred.

When I put a question about this to Allison Demas of Media InSite, a real-time media monitoring firm that serves clients interested in tracking mentions and presence in the media, she waved it off vigorously, as if chasing a particularly troublesome fly. 

“Every time that we have tried to do that – and it’s three times we have tried – we have been burned,” she said. 

In an indistinct conversation with an agency representative at the front of a room during Tuesday’s meeting called to discuss advertising numbers over the last five years, Demas seemed to be suggesting that having compiled a report on media performance, she was asked by an agency executive to bury it. 

Demas’ firm uses sophisticated technologies to mine advertising data from publications both online and in print and in the process of doing that, almost certainly has insight into the audience profile and reach of media houses. 

It seems clear now that what was once studied disinterest or demurral on the subject of gathering reliable information on media house reach and performance online and in print, has now devolved into a blunt refusal to know. 

It’s astonishing to consider that in an era that is largely driven by data gathering and analysis to improve product profiles for customers, both existing and prospective, that the information is not only unsponsored, it is actively ignored even when it is gathered as a by-product of other work.

Agency managers at the meeting discussed their efforts to gather information among themselves, referencing services offered by Pulse and GeoPoll, but the consensus what that samples were too small to be useful and the budget to expand them into wider usability was simply unavailable. 

Media house representatives spoke of their own surveys, undertaken for advertiser insight and for their own strategic planning, but that data, along with data gathered by agencies for their own purposes, is necessarily biased toward actionable information rather than any wider consideration what is now clearly a dramatic downward trend in media advertising generally, with little indication of any reversals in the future. 

Between 2014 and 2015, in a data-gathering year outside the scope of the survey presented by Media InSight, a general election brought only a 24 per cent boost in advertising revenues to media houses. 

Between 2014 and 2015, the general election brought a 24 per cent boost in advertising revenues to media houses. 

With no numbers available for meaningful comparison for advertising in previous election years, one is forced to rely on the rather strong impression that election spending delivered a significantly higher bump to the coffers of media houses when it came time to woo the electorate. 

Both the UNC and the PNM by now are aware that the promises of effectiveness in both print and broadcast media are driven now more by hope than by results. 

Expect more spending in 2020 on politically aligned posts, boosts and sponsored spending to push those posts into social media channels and more funding of party-faithful sock puppets to consume the once dependable advertising spend on sketchy achievements and noxious accusations. 

Both are better served by the appearance of personal endorsement on social media outlets that are increasingly adept at making the inexcusable palatable after it’s been flattened into the personal space of an individual’s newsfeed. 

At a time when it would seem critical to know exactly what was happening in the local media landscape to be able to plan strategic measures to improve relevance, target audiences interested in reliable sources of information and generally improve the profile of professional journalism in the national landscape, both literal as well as digital, media houses seem to be poking around in the dark, trying to get a response from an audience they barely understand anymore. 

Media houses seem to be poking around in the dark, trying to get a response from an audience they barely understand anymore. 

Winning a generation that’s come to voting age in an era of open access to information from multiple portals has opened new opportunities for political opportunists. 

Journalism has a key role to play in sifting popular meme from verifiable fact over the next election and it seems that local media will be doing so blindfolded, with little understanding of the character and dynamic of an audience it once took for granted.

It’s simply no longer possible to do journalism effectively without access to data. If you don’t know who you are producing work for, you can rest assured that your competition certainly is, and in that mix you may count every newsgathering outlet active today, not just the local competition. 

There is a powerful sense of complacency governing the management of local media houses, a belief, bordering on an irrational hope, that all this Internet business is a blip that can be ridden out. 

It is not.

It is a fundamental change in the transactional nature of the act of journalism, one that has progressed rapidly while newsrooms and media advertising executives continue doing business-as-usual. 

I am of traditional media. I continue to do work for at least two local media houses, one publishing newspapers, the other magazines. 

I do not believe that traditional media is dead, but I am certain that for publishing and broadcasting to thrive, it must acknowledge the fundamental changes that have recast the foundations of newsgathering and opinion leadership. 

Someone will engage with the public in this evolving space and earn trust and repeat readership, but there is no guarantee that it will be the media houses that were granted that honor in the past. 

It will be those that understand the new compact between journalism producers and their readers and navigates that changing engagement with authority. 

That understanding will be underwritten by a familiarity with data, an understanding of what analysis of it can reveal and the will to shape journalism and advertising support according to the realities of modern media engagement, not a wistful fantasy of a past that began evaporating a decade ago.

Ignorance is not always bliss. Sometimes it’s just ignorance.