The pros and cons of getting to know your readers better

With membership and subscription programs playing an increasingly important role in media business models, many publishers seem to be trying to get to know their readers better. The New York Times, for example, has started asking its readers to tell the paper a bit more about themselves, using a web form posted at its Reader Center. The Times asks readers to share their name, email address, phone number, Twitter and Instagram handles with the paper, as well as their age, occupation and hometown.

It goes on to ask readers to share their race and religious background, their ethnicity and gender, how they identify politically, and whether they are married, single, divorced, childless, and so on. A disclaimer at the bottom in small print says the Times may use the details provided to verify readers’ identities and to contact them for stories, and also notes that if the Times publishes content submitted by a reader, it might include their name and/or location.

In explaining the rationale for asking for this kind of personal information, the Times notes that it has used reader input to produce better journalism, including stories about a teachers’ strike that included content provided by readers, and a story about how evangelical millennial readers viewed the US midterm elections. The Reader Center itself is also a relatively new thing, launched in 2017 after the Times announced a renewed focus on reader engagement (although it somewhat paradoxically shut down its public editor position at the same time).

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The paper tries to assuage any concerns about personal data going astray—something many Facebook users are probably hyper-sensitive about in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and other data breaches—by noting that any information provided through the form “will only be used for journalistic purposes.” A separate statement of reader submission terms says personal information will not be used or disclosed for marketing purposes (although readers do give the Times a “perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive worldwide license” to use, copy, transmit, adapt, modify, publish, and create derivative works” from any content they provide).

The Times is hardly the only publisher asking readers for more information about themselves—a number of newspapers and publishers in both the US and Europe also do this, in part because they want to build stronger relationships with their readers, and to be able to personalize the content they share. Some publishers such as De Correspondent, the Dutch member-financed site that just launched an English-language version, rely heavily on their readers for content and in some cases even get their members to write stories and analysis pieces for the site.

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Although the reasons given by the Times and others for accumulating personal details make sense, it remains to be seen whether readers will see these requests as friendly, or overly intrusive. While the media likes to write about how aggressive Facebook and other web companies are about harvesting personal information, almost all digital publishers—including The New York Times—employ their own data-mining techniques, and in some cases use dozens of third-party tracking cookies, pixels, and other tools to harvest data about reader behavior, location, and browsing habits. This is done for advertising purposes, of course, while the information readers might provide through the online form is intended for journalism, but whether readers will appreciate the distinction remains to be seen.

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Here’s more on reader tracking, data and engagement:

  • Twice the tracking: A 2015 study of ad tracking found that browsing news-related websites actually exposes readers to more than twice as much data tracking as they would experience on non-news websites. “The surprising extent to which news organizations subject readers to third-party tracking deserves closer attention,” the study said.
  • Predictive models: The Wall Street Journal recently announced it is hiring more than 35 editorial staff for several newly created departments, including teams devoted to reader engagement and audience data. It said the latter would “help develop new metrics,” as well as predictive models that could give different users the experiences they want.
  • In person is better: Media researcher Nicole Blanchett Neheli says that while data from automated tracking can be useful in getting to know your audience, publishers also need to use feedback mechanisms, including in-person interaction, because that leads to conversations about what matters, and what should matter, to specific communities.
  • No more tracking: Earlier this month, the Indiana-based alternative paper Nuvo made a radical move to becoming more reader centered when it shut down its print operation, donated the brand to a non-profit foundation and announced that it would give up advertising revenue and become completely reader-funded.

Other notable stories:

  • First Look Media, the Pierre Omidyar-backed entity behind The Intercept, is laying off 4 percent of its staff, including its research team, and is shutting down the Snowden archive, according to a report from The Daily Beast. Filmmaker Laura Poitras, who helped start First Look, said she was “sickened” by the decisions.
  • Jason Rezaian, the former Tehran bureau chief for The Washington Post who was jailed in Iran on espionage charges, says the US is failing Mexican journalist Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, who was forced to leave his country in 2008 after receiving death threats due to his reporting, and has been trapped in immigration limbo ever since.
  • Meredith McCarroll writes for CJR about the upcoming movie based on author JD Vance’s book Hillbilly Elegy, and wonders whether the film version of the controversial autobiographical novel will do good things or bad things for Appalachia. Residents of the area, she says, are concerned that it could become another Deliverance.
  • The Information reports that sources close to Vice Media say the company is looking to raise a new round of financing that will bring in up to $200 million, which it hopes will give it enough time to become profitable. The company recently laid off 10 percent of its workforce after missing its revenue targets.
  • A feature in The Hollywood Reporter looks at Fox News commentators who have been forced to disclose their compensation after getting jobs in government, and notes that salaries range from a low of $31,336 for Georgette Mosbacher (now ambassador to Poland) to a high of $569,423 for John Bolton, Trump’s national security advisor.
  • Julia Thomas writes at the Nieman Lab about how independent media in Zimbabwe have turned to WhatsApp as a primary method of distribution. The app “has come to fill the void that traditional/mainstream media was not able to fill, in terms of distributing alternative views on issues and policies,” said a Zimbabwean university professor.
  • Facebook’s fact-checking project has received its share of criticism in the past, but Poynter says that the program has convinced at least one prominent fake-news publisher to take down hoaxes after they have been fact-checked, and the group’s network of sites have also started adding large disclaimers saying they are satire.
  • The staff of Gimlet Media, a podcasting company started by two public-radio producers that was recently acquired by Spotify for $230 million, are forming a union, BuzzFeed reports. A number of digital news outlets have unionized over the past year, but Gimlet is the first audio-focused publisher to do so.
  • The ACLU has published thousands of pages of documents it obtained from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency under the Freedom of Information Act, which show that ICE allows employees to access a controversial license plate database that civil liberties advocates say is overly invasive.
  • A Reuters Institute study shows that in the three years since the publication of the Panama Papers, almost 20 percent of countries and agencies affected have made substantive regulatory or legal changes, but it also notes that there has been a backlash against journalists in 17 percent of the countries studied.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.