In the wake of the Journatic scandal, the role of automation in hyperlocal publishing remains uncertain. During a panel at the Street Fight Summit on Wednesday, leaders from top hyperlocal media companies examined the issue, both discussing the way the use of data is affecting media today and how it can make scale possible tomorrow.
Brian Addison, president of EveryBlock, said pure data had appeal but only to a “somewhat limited niche audience.” What Addison found was that raw data lacked a human element — and plummeting numbers early on proved this. “It’s dry and also creepy to a certain extent,” said Addison about the user experience.
In early 2011, EveryBlock redesigned its site to shift toward a more socially driven format. Addison believes that users are already comfortable with automated data but the next task is to get users to buy in for the community piece. Either way, there’s no way to program humanity into the process except to put a human layer in the middle of data and the audience.
Gary Cowan, senior vice president of product and marketing, pointed to Homicide Watch as an example of a company successfully leveraging the human side. Users became invested in the data. Homicide Watch layered in stories about the causes of murders as well as pieces about the lives of those lost, providing a deeper narrative so that readers could contextualize the data.
DataSphere also uses data for its business side, automating various sales processes. “For us, if we can make our sales reps more effective, we can get that much more done,” Cowan said. “The efficiency side of it is more fuel for growth, rather than taking away the investment.”
But how do hyperlocal publishers encourage their own people to buy into this? Sun-Times Media, which cut its ties with Journatic quickly after the scandal broke, is now working on convincing its reporters that tools can help deliver reporting that may otherwise be too inefficient to justify. Sun-Times Media’s editor in chief, Jim Kirk, said the largest challenge is helping journalists extract value from data on a deeper level.
“The biggest thing we learned from that is to make sure that even if you’re working with an outside vendor like Journatic … to make sure there is a layer of editing somewhere within the process,” said Kirk, who is also a senior vice president at his company. “That adds to the cost of course, but you need to make sure you’re comfortable with the content.”
“In a very traditional news town, … it is extremely difficult for them to get their arms around it,” Kirk said. “It’s either move forward or die.”
Photo credit: Shana Wittenwyler