Journalists should act more like data marketers, but ranking them is stupid, claims news chief

Journalists should behave more like marketers, the boss of one of Australia’s largest news sites has claimed.

Hal Crawford M360 2014

Crawford: Journalists’ leaderboard experiment was ‘just stupid’

Hal Crawford, Ninemsn’s editor-in-chief and publisher, told Mumbrella: “News people have a lot to learn from marketing people, which is a little bit counter-intuitive and maybe a little sacrilegious.” However, he has warned that simplistic rankings of how writers perform is “stupid”.   

Crawford's book

Crawford’s book: Explains the principles of SENT

Speaking to Mumbrella on the launch of his new book All Your Friends Like This, co-written with Domagoj Filipovic and Andrew Hunter, Crawford said publishers should draw on the analytical thinking already applied by marketers to what works.

The book is a distillation of the trio’s thinking about how news content is shared socially, and follows on from their blog Share Wars. This includes identifying what defines the most shareable content. “The principles of SENT – simple, emotional, new and triggered – are a generalisation of a lot of different work that has gone into thinking about what makes things be passed on,” Crawford said.

“You can use them if you have two stories side by side and you want to know which will be more shared. In general, you’re right.”

“The most useful stuff we found in terms of prediction was a lot of work marketers had already done and we could take that and take our own knowledge and apply it to the news sphere.”

However, what the public think they want, and what the actually click on are two different things, Crawford warns.

“The discrepancy between people’s behaviours and what they say they want is large,” he said. “What people say they want is actually very highly relevant, it’s totally valid and their behaviour is totally valid.

“We have to aspire. And on top of that you have to say ‘OK, what do I want to do? What do I want to publish?’, it’s infinite.”

However, although analytics are important, Crawford warned against setting journalists simplistic targets.

He said: “It’s not new to have journalists really accountable for the audience that they generate. “You have to do that in a way that isn’t too granular, that you get really boring and bad stories and a terrible mix on your page. You’ve got to do it in a really smart way. You have to experiment.”

You can listen to the full interview with Crawford by clicking on the above link. 

Last month Crikey revealed Fairfax journalists at both The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age will be given weekly updates on how their stories are tracking online after “personalised dashboards” were rolled out.  In May, Mumbrella revealed a ranking of the top scoring journalists on Fairfax’s Australian Financial Review.

However, Crawford said that Ninemsn’s own experiment with leaderboards of people who wrote the most shared articles has been a failure. “I thought it would work but it doesn’t really work,” he said.

“It was just stupid and even within its stupidity it didn’t work,” Crawford said, explaining Ninemsn even invested in the “Shareable Cup”, a trophy designed to reward the journalist with the most shareable content.

“Within a newsroom there should be more of a collegiate feeling than a competitive feeling,” he said.

“What I would want my journalists competing with is something external. There’s a certain amount of healthy competition in a newsroom to break stories.

“Ranking people on a minute by minute basis is probably noxious for the culture of your newsroom,” he added.

Crawford said journalists should be accountable for writing copy that engages an audience.

“Maybe you should look at their performance every three months and aggregate it that way,” he said.

Crawford’s book explores how the media industry evolved its understanding of how to generate audiences over the last 15 years. The process went from simply writing click-friendly stories about the likes of Britney Spears to crafting content that people will be keen to pass on to friends.

AMP Washington Post

Google’s AMP project – will speed up the mobile web

And he predicted that the next shift will be driven by the likes of Facebook’s Instant Articles, the Apple News app, and Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages.

Instant Articles and Apple News are yet to launch in Australia. “I don’t know how exactly it will change things. They’re really important developments,” he said.

When asked if the launch of these new distribution platforms risk taking control out of the hands of publishers, Crawford said “I would say there is risk involved in anything, particularly if one of those platforms becomes absolute dominant in the news arena.

“You’ve got to ask yourself, what is the exact situation anyway in terms of the traditional publishers and the amount of control they wield over their platforms?”

Miranda Ward


Hal Crawford is speaking at next week’s Publish Conference on the future of news. He will be joined on the panel by Buzzfeed Australia editor Simon Crerar, News Corp Australia group director of editorial Campbell Reid, Fairfax’s Australian Publishing Media group director of news and business media Sean Aylmer. For further information on the program and how to buy tickets click on the banner below.



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