WAN-Ifra India: Hot clicks and dead kids in data contrast

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So it has come to this: Battery journalists "cranked up" by Chartbeat and reminded of their targets, "every couple of hours".

Trinity Mirror Regionals' digital editor Edward Walker, who founded a local website in Preston before going on to head digital for the UK company's 150 news brands, believes it's all about audience data, driving page views and revenue.

"I get accused of clickbait - a word I hate - but it's underpinned by local data," he says.

Chartbeat is "always on", and journalists are urged to use the inhouse Hive Alpha analytics for which "they don't even need to ask". Audience data is "the ultimate tool to help editors improve their content".

His idea of a good story, a spurned lover hauling his piano into a town centre and playing literally 'til his heart's content, or perhaps a gory murder trial which shows the pulling power of "quite traditional" content.

Not that he's alone. The Facebook focus is repeated through the second day of WAN-Ifra's India conference in Chennai.

But happily another speaker from the UK, the BBC's Bella Hurrell has a different use for statistics, "visualizing" data to give readers a better understanding of life in war-torn Syria. The News unit won an award for a project which puts readers in the shoes of fleeing refugees, despite criticism from rival media that they were "making a computer game" of the human crisis.

One element in the 'Life and death in Syria' project lists the names of children killed during the war in a feature which would take 19 hours to fully view.

Projects such as this award-winning visualization take perhaps four weeks' of fitting it around other work and reconciling the "never let the perfect be the enemy of the good" compromise.

"Journalism is boiling it down," she says. "Keeping something simple really works."

Somehow that - and Basanthe Rathore's Dainik Jagran campaign to persuade rural Indians not to relieve themselves in the open - put journalism's conflict in perspective. Something chief executives had touched on in the conference's first day: Should newsmedia companies focus on journalism or use their resources to chase clicks in support of an increasingly-obsolete advertising-funded business model.

WAN-Ifra India - which also included training from Facebook and sponsorship from Google - may not have provided answers, but it certainly contributed food for thought. That was equally the case with Al Jazeera senior producer Shadi Rahimi, who was back after an appearance at the conference in 2015 to discuss "fake news and the future of journalism".

With trust in media at an all time low, hers was a call to fight back, but one short on answers about how to do so: "It's out duty to make fake news obsolete or a non-issue," she says.

Earlier Rathore told how the Hindi-language daily had "wanted to make a difference", especially as deadlines for an initiative to end open defecation were looming. The stark fact that 50 per cent of Indian residents do not have a toilet at home was addressed by Jagran's leading community action, explaining effects, and fostering objection to what for some was a preferred practice.

"This is linked to one of the seven principles at the core of our editorial philosophy, a healthy society," says Rathore.

Jagran enlisted a sanitation partner, co-opted district administrators, named change leaders and organized training workshops. Newspaper editorial placed an "intense spotlight" on the project's success stories.

Funding such initiatives with diminishing advertising revenue is, of course, another matter, and the final day had differing approaches to that. Final speaker Gautam Sinha - who is Times Internet's chief operating officer - had tips on digital transformation, emphasizing that the process was "anything but digital" as the focus moves to people and culture.

"Technology is the easiest bit to achieve," he says.

Monetisation had come from interaction between users of the group's 36 properties. Some might question his assertions that "digital's purpose is not to sunset print, but to extend its life" and that the two "should co-exist so long as they have their respective audiences", but not that "scale is not necessarily the right approach" and "loyalty is the thing you monetize".

Which is where we had come in two days before, with the importance of paying rather than promiscuous readers (The Hindu's Mukund Padmanabhan) and the threats to a future founded on clicks.

It may be a contrast to life at Trinity Mirror - where Walker says journalists who claim they "don't' have enough time" are advised to cut their less-clicked stories - but that's life in newsmedia. Your choice.

Peter Coleman

Pictured: AJ+ producer Shadi Rahimi with WAN-Ifra South Asia managing director Magdoom Mohamed

On our website: BBC News' Bella Hurrell

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