Why the editor of The Times kicked News UK’s big data chief out of his office

The first day in any new job is a daunting prospect. Will people like me? Will I be respected?

For senior management positions, it tends to be a bit easier – particularly if you are reporting directly into the CEO of a large organisation. People have to be nice to you because you’re important, and your job tier demands respect in itself.

But News UK – publisher of The Sun, The Times and The Sunday Times – is no ordinary organisation. And journalists are no ordinary employees.

Nobody knows this better than Andy Day, the data supremo poached from Telefonica in November 2013 to create and lead a centralised business intelligence (BI) unit for News UK’s publications.

What is BI, journalists may ask? In short, it is the process of taking the data an organisation collects and transforming it into useful information that improves decision-making.

More to the point, why did News UK need to invest millions of pounds in building a BI department with 60 staff and acquiring a range of expensive technology?

That was the question that was no doubt on the mind of John Witherow, editor of The Times, when a one-on-one meeting was arranged for him with the new BI director – not that he wanted the answer.

Instead, he treated Day to his first taste of resistance – no sooner had he walked into his office than he was told to leave.

Had he asked, and Day been brave enough to answer, he would have been told: News UK was struggling.

Old vs. new

Witherow’s attitude was typical of the old world’s disdain of the new in journalism, a trade that was done the same way for a long time.

The rapid rise of internet-native publications has coincided directly with a steady decline in print circulations for many years now. The Times has plunged from a circulation of more than 800,000 in the late 90s to under 400,000 today. And while The Sun is still the UK's most read newspaper in print, last year it fell below 2 million sales for the first time since 1971 – half that of 20 years ago.

During 19 years as editor of the Sunday Times, Witherow earned his name exposing high-profile scandals like cash for honours, expenses fraud in the House of Lords and corruption in the 2022 World Cup bid. Being told by an IT guy how he could do his job better was not likely to go down well.

But such stubbornness epitomises the fairly disastrous shift to digital that much of the traditional press has endured.

Armed with fiercely growing readership, online publications have turned traditional business models on their head. People could suddenly read news for free and much sooner than rigid print deliveries allowed, while marketers discovered cheaper advertising and more tangible return.

Most publishers accepted this new monetisation model where advertisers pay for clicks, transforming how they created content for online. Such was the birth of 'clickbait' journalism, where articles lure readers in with curious and sensational headlines to increase traffic and serve advertising campaigns.

But guided by its notorious owner – billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch – News UK was relentless in its belief that content should still be paid for.

As a result, The Times and the Sunday Times were put behind an online paywall in July 2010, and The Sun in August 2013.

At the time, analysts predicted The Sun would require 250,000 to 300,000 paying subscribers to turn a profit, but subsequent major investments in exclusive sports rights have likely pushed that goal much higher. It is thought News UK paid £30 million for three years of Premier League rights alone.

As of December 2014, it was sitting at around 225,000 subscribers, the majority of which were on the monthly £7.99 package for digital service Sun+. This includes digital access to The Sun across desktop, smartphone and tablet, as well as The Sun Goals app for Premier League highlights.

Subscriptions for The Times and Sunday Times, meanwhile, broke the 400,000 milestone in March, although that includes print-only users. Around 172,000 were on the digital-only subscription, which again includes exclusive sports highlights, while a further 229,000 were on either a print or combined print and digital product.

News UK ruthlessly insists its digital subscriptions prove it was right to go down the paywall route, but it can’t deny the fact that its sites have been made less attractive to advertisers, which find far greater traffic at free-to-view leaders like Mail Online and the Guardian.

It has also had to deal with the unfortunate reality that any big stories its editorial teams scoop are reported across rival online publications, which effectively steal traffic because they can be accessed for free.

Data is king

However, the subscriptions model does offer one clear advantage over free-to-view. As many industries learned before publishing companies, data is king in the digital world.

That, ultimately, is why News UK set up a BI unit: to utilise insights from the type of data that its rivals do not have access to.

>See also: How Bolton Wanderers are revolutionising the use of data analysis in football to win back their Premier League place

When somebody subscribes to a News UK publication, the company learns a lot about their profile. How old they are, what job they do, where they live, whether they own or rent. It can also track subscribers’ usage and engagement – what kinds of content they like, how they consume it and how often.

By pulling all of this information together, they could learn an awful lot about their customers – particularly, how to keep them engaged for longer to reduce churn and what they could do to attract more of them.

But it was a difficult task translating that message to the editorial staff.

‘He’d been in the business five minutes and John Witherow said you’re not going to be able to do anything for me so you might as well go now,’ says Keith Guthrie, who Day hired in August 2014 to transform how the company reports data and communicates it to relevant stakeholders.

‘Probably the most influential person on the board of News UK telling the new BI director that he doesn’t value the job that he does.’

Day’s first meeting with The Sun editor David Dinsmore was more successful, but just as insightful into how the journalists would be to deal with. 'If I want a dwarf dressed in green drinking a pint of beer on my desk at 4pm,' Dinsmore told him, 'it will be there at 3.50pm.' Whatever the journalists ask for, they get.

Day and Guthrie not only faced the daunting task of getting the editorial team to understand BI, but also fixing the data itself.

‘You’ve got journalists and editors in the newsroom who don’t really care that we’ve got data – they like their gut feel,’ says Guthrie. ‘They think they know everything, which is no bad thing but we can help them.

‘At the same time, News UK’s data environment is completely fragmented. It has big problems with its data.’

Previously, News UK did all of its reporting in Excel, in which a third party would build clunky spreadsheets, so over the last nine months Guthrie’s team has been migrating all of this into data visualisation tool Tableau.

This December, it will also go live with an enterprise data warehousing solution to further enhance its reporting.

Until then, it is Tableau that News UK wishes to shout about. According to Guthrie, it has saved 500 hours in legacy reporting by better organising the data and automating reports.

But while saving time in the BI team is valuable, it does not justify the existence of the BI team itself. That is where the visualisation element comes in. If journalists are given attractive and accessible visualisations of content analytics and usage, they can tailor their writing accordingly.

Given their resistance, Guthrie decided the best strategy to win them over was to first get information into their hands more subtly. Or as he puts it, ‘sneakily getting BI into the business’.

‘Our first inroad was our TV screens,’ he says. ‘We’ve got big plasma screens all over the office displaying sports and breaking news, as you would expect in a newsroom.

‘But we’ve taken some of them over and this has been a great coup for us because we’re getting information into the hands of the journalists without them even knowing about it.’

This information includes what platform people are viewing content on. On 7 July, for example, 44% of The Times’ usage was on tablet and 23% on mobile.

From there, Guthrie advanced. He built something called ‘Sunalytics’ on top of the Tableau tool, allowing all journalists to log in and see visualisations on how individual stories are performing and which are the most read.

Meanwhile, a subscription usage dashboard – aimed more at the marketing and sales departments – has consolidated and replaced 15 to 20 different reports, and enabled a deeper understanding of customer behaviour. Even members of the board have been spotted examining the dashboard on their iPads.

Where the sun don’t shine

Strong progress has been made and stakeholders across News UK, including the editorial team, are beginning to embrace an emerging data culture at the organisation.

But the jury is still out on the return that this hefty investment in BI will have. While marketing can certainly make more informed decisions on the 700 yearly products News UK offers, Guthrie admits it is very difficult to measure the impact of more data-driven journalists on subscriptions, usage and engagement.

Meanwhile, News UK made a giant U-turn on its commitment to paid-for content last month. As of July, a great deal of the stories on The Sun's website are now accessible for free.

According to the company's CEO Mike Darcey, News UK now wants The Sun to prioritise ‘shareable’ stories to take advantage of readers who discover content on social media. In other words, exactly what its rivals have been doing for years.

The Sun has subsequently found itself in a muddle. What extra value are its subscribers getting if stories are now free to read? Other than the Premier League highlights, the answer is none.

If it has succumbed to the pay-per-click monetisation model, as appears to be the case, it has a mountain to climb to reach its rivals, who chalk up hundreds of millions impressions every month.

In comparison, The Sun’s most-read story in the month ending July 7 got a measly 17,157 views – nowhere near enough to win substantial advertising campaigns.

And what does this all mean for News UK’s BI team? Its influence will dwindle if The Sun continues down this path, so it will be hoping The Times and Sunday Times don’t follow suit.

Broadsheet readers are certainly more inclined to pay for quality, but younger generations generally despise paywalls altogether – so Darcey and his team will be examining this very closely.

That’s not to say that a BI team can’t be effective in free-to-view publishing, but it may have to prove its worth all over again.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...