How Data Insight is Changing The Economist

Ben Clayton

08 Jul 2016

This week at a PRCA event, Kenneth Cukier, The Economist's Senior Editor for Data and Digital, explained, “big data” was once just an underground term no-one used. Oh how things have changed over the past few years…   He discovered this when he was commissioned to write a special report for the publication on “the role of information”. According to Kenneth, it was a great gig with an almost unlimited budget, months to spend on it and a likely place on the front page of the magazine. The problem was, he was well ahead of his time and this wasn’t helped by the likes of Google and Microsoft which were unwilling to share their trade secrets. This only made him more inquisitive though, so with a little more persistence he was able to write the piece. This made the editor sit up and realise that big data had to be applied internally to help The Economist successful evolve in a rapidly changing media landscape.   So Kenneth turned his expertise in house and has now spent years advising The Economist on how the company itself can use data to best serve its readers. Not only this, but how it can distinguish between different types of readers – an important consideration as its revenue is not made from click-throughs, but subscriptions.   Transforming from the inside out Kenneth explained that, for him, differentiating between someone who understands the business and someone who understands data is hugely important. That is why he hired someone from outside the media industry with a “naïve beginners mindset to question everything”, to take a fresh look at The Economist’s data.   Many businesses are in the process of hiring data experts and it is no secret that there is a shortage out there. Could the answer be to hire an expert straight out of university rather than recruiting someone with a relevant CV, but who might be set in their ways?   The other challenge for businesses is changing the culture, to be more data-led. According to Kenneth, The Economist was no different and some drastic actions were taken. In fact, he believes this culture was only fully embedded in the company when they changed physical seating plans and adjusted reporting lines so that data analysts, designers and journalists were one team.   Practising what they preach We all love the charts in The Economist, whether they are about how many romantic encounters each Bond had or the value of the fishing industry in Canada. But it took some work for The Economist to favour these data driven stories with a focus on visuals as opposed to just text. By looking at what lies behind the data to find that “oh sh*t” moment, as he described it, data became the heart of the story and all of a sudden departments were fighting over the corresponding graphics.   So, we have gone from an underground term that no-one used to the likes of Forbes using data and algorithms to write stories. The question is, where next?