Big Data
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Does print have a place in data-driven news?

Amid all the post-mortems on media coverage of election 2012, one phrase jumped out at me as best encapsulating the shift that is currently taking place in digital media. In a comprehensive round-up piece at Nieman Lab, CNN’s Marissa Gallagher’s used “purpose-driven design” to describe the new tools being utilized, and the shifting media consumer expectations they respond to and feed. Gallagher, CNN’s vice-president for design, photography and multimedia, employed this phrase to describe the delivery of dynamic content based around time and/or events on multiple platforms.

In other words, within the context of the election, purpose-driven design means knocking down the semi-static front pages of digital news sites and replacing them with near real-time tickers of activity, indicators and analysis that put media consumers in the moment, with fingertips on a dashboard of sentiment, swings, stats and social streams. Not content to just wait up late for the networks to call the races, we want war rooms in our own living rooms, and Gallagher and many of her competitors went all-out during this election to build them.

If indeed 20 percent of the traffic to the New York Times website in the final week of the election went to Nate Silver’s Fivethirtyeight blog and its data, you can be sure digital editors will be spending the next few months looking at how they can “double down” on data, to use the oft-repeated phrase of pols and pundits. The fact that paywalls came down at the Times and the Wall Street Journal just for election coverage shows how much these publishers wanted to expose their analytical goods to the public (by comparison, the Financial Times only opened up a dedicated section of the site, including live blog and related video, to election coverage).   

What does this experience mean for the major media platforms? If dynamic data can consistently drive the surges in interest and duration of usage seen in these election “experiments,” even of not on the same flash scale, digital seems to come away with a significant advantage going forward in major event-driven coverage. One thing that was particularly striking in this election was the tight integration of different digital media feeds—video, social, data—by both the major news sites and the search sites Google and Bing. Google’s multi-channel YouTube Live page, which rolled together live video feeds from the Times, Univision, Al Jazeera, WSJ.com, BuzzFeed and more, points to how these integrated sites could pose a growing problem for TV networks in an increasingly mobile world, where fast scanning and first-to-your-stream commenting become important social currency. This is the kind of “purpose-driven design” Gallagher was speaking about, only Google and Bing are sitting on much larger analytical engines with which to parse data.

If these trends continue, print becomes more and more of a next-day souvenir edition, a physical artifact of digital-first coverage. With a topic as changeable and fast-moving as US politics today, print political coverage becomes more about opinion and analysis, much like business news, but it will have a harder time competing with wall-to-wall digital on such an ephemeral subject.

For TV, the screen is becoming a barrier as much as a canvas (perhaps why CNN went for the “augmented architecture” play by lighting up the Empire State Building, while NBC painted the ice rink at Rock Center). While the major TV networks continue to pour their efforts into bringing the data to life, as a platform it remains behind the glass wall, with us watching someone else reviewing the numbers, like an iPad you can’t touch. TV numbers still remain higher than digital—Nielsen reported around 67 million primetime viewers on election night, though this is down from 2008—but digital is gaining in scale relative to this, with topic-specific sites like Politico reporting over 9 million unique visitors on the day. With the aforementioned wrapping on video feeds into data-rich sites, plus the growth of cable-cutting, TV may increasingly find itself as a condiment on election night. For the tableted and mobile classes, TV coverage itself becomes the second screen, a sonorous voice-over to the tweet stream in your lap.

But this ability to use purpose-driven, data-rich design has implications for digital news sites as well. With all of the investment dumped into developing a consistent, branded experience, the ability to deconstruct this on a dime and push something completely new sets an expectation for innovation—and change—that is hard to keep up with. How are you going to keep us down on the home page when we’ve seen your interaction-rich Election Center 2012? You’ve got us leaning forward, being the pundits and statisticians ourselves, how will you talk us into leaning back again?

State-by-state probabilities map from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog at nytimes.com