Data does not lead to puppy stories

Data does not lead to puppy stories
6 March 2017 Erik van Heeswijk

Data does not lead to puppy stories

Last week with John Oliver covered a heart-warming plea for caring for regional newspapers as being the core of independent journalism. In that video was a particular piece that stood out for me and is symbolic for discussions that we at CleverLions and SmartOcto occasionally encounter.

In 2007 investor Sam Zell bought a couple American newspapers and gave a lecture at his brand new ‘asset’ the Orlando Sentinel. Zell explained to the attending journalists that they needed to focus on what readers want. A journalist dared to ask questions:

Journalist: what readers want are puppy dogs and we also need to inform the community…
Zell: I am sorry, … you are giving me the classic – what I would call – journalistic arrogance, deciding that puppies don’t count.

A few sentences later Zell expressed his frustration by using some ‘direct’ language, a custom he apparently was known for. Those are the juicy details, but this interesting scene shows in extreme two different opinions that are dominating journalism today. I call them the “artist approach” and “the butler approach”.

The artist approach sees journalism as a calling, a duty to inform the public with the important facts. The classic journalist in this paradigm is not really interested in what the audience wants to read or see, but is determined to unravel what needs to be seen. This view is often accompanied with a rather low image of what the public wants (‘puppy stories’ in stead of ‘Iraq’).

The butler approach just gives people what they want. It sees a newspaper or journalistic TV-show as a product like anything else and the art of journalism is the art of storytelling combined with the art of marketing, wrapped in a business model. Nothing more.

In many discussions on the course of journalism, especially newspapers, these views (although almost never in pure form) collide. And when we at SmartOcto want to bring data in the newsroom we often get placed in the ‘butler approach’ of letting the audience decide on the content, to robotize your taste. For a lot of journalists ‘big data’ is therefore synonymous with making puppy video’s to boost online clicks. A data dashboard in their view interferes with their sacred mission of reporting what is important, instead of what is popular (see also the John Oliver video).


I think letting these contradicting paradigms rule the discussion is the very core of the crisis in journalism. In the abundance of information, journalists should be concerned with making important stories well-read, make niche-stories crucial for the niche audience and reaching a big audience with a well-balanced story buffet. Data is one of the most suitable tools to solve those complex puzzles. A good data and content strategy takes all these factors into account.

So actually, I think John Oliver, with all his good intentions, is just very wrong: journalism cannot only be saved by classic reporting and begging the consumer to pay for it. If you want your Iraq stories to be read, think long and hard about your data. That is the future of serious journalism. When you only trust to your own gut feeling, good stories die and the puppy stories might eventually take over.