Experiencing Data with Brian T. O’Neill

060 - How NPR Uses Data to Drive Editorial Decisions in the Newsroom with Sr. Dir. of Audience Insights Steve Mulder

March 9, 2021

Journalism is one of the keystones of American democracy. For centuries, reporters and editors have kept those in power accountable by seeking out the truth and reporting it.


However, the art of newsgathering has changed dramatically in the digital age. Just take it from NPR Senior Director of Audience Insights Steve Mulder — whose team is helping change the way NPR makes editorial decisions by introducing a streamlined and accessible platform for data analytics and insights.


Steve and I go way, way back (Lycos anyone!?) — and I’m so excited to welcome him on this episode of Experiencing Data! We talked a lot about the Story Analytics and Data Insights (SANDI) dashboard for NPR content creators that Steve’s team just recently launched, and dove into:

  • How Steve’s design and UX background influences his approach to building analytical tools and insights  (1:04)
  • Why data teams at NPR embrace qualitative UX research when building analytics and insights solutions for the editorial team. (6:03)
  • What the Story Analytics and Data Insights (SANDI) dashboard for NPR’s newsroom is, the goals it is supporting, and the data silos that had to be broken down (10:52)
  • How the NPR newsroom uses SANDI to measure audience reach and engagement. (14:40)
  • 'It's our job to be translators': The role of moving from ‘what’ to ‘so what’ to ‘now what’ (22:57)

Quotes from Today’s Episode

People with backgrounds in UX and design end up everywhere. And I think it's because we have a couple of things going for us. We are user-centered in our hearts. Our goal is to understand people and what they need — regardless of what space we're talking about. We are grounded in research and getting to the underlying motivations of people and what they need. We're focused on good communication and interpretation and putting knowledge into action — we're generalists. - Steve (1:44)


The familiar trope is that quantitative research tells you what is going on, and qualitative research tells you why. Qualitative research gets underneath the surface to answer why people feel the way they do. Why are they motivated? Why are they describing their needs in a certain way? - Steve (6:32)


The more we work with people and develop relationships — and build that deeper sense of trust as an organization with each other — the more openness there is to having a real conversation. - Steve (9:06)


I’ve been reading a book by Nancy Duarte called DataStory (see Episode 32 of this show), and in the book she talks about this model of the career growth [...]that is really in sync with how I've been thinking about it. [...]you begin as an explorer of data — you're swimming in the data and finding insights from the data-first perspective. Over time in your career, you become an explainer. And an explainer is all about creating meaning: what is the context and interpretation that I can bring to this insight that makes it important, that answers the question, “So what?” And then the final step is to inspire, to actually inspire action and inspire new ways of looking at business problems or whatever you're looking at. - Steve (25:50)


I think that carving things down to what's the simplest is always a big challenge, just because those of us drowning in data are always tempted to expose more of it than we should. - Steve (29:30)


There's a healthy skepticism in some parts of NPR  around data and around the fact that ‘I don't want data to limit what I do with my job. I don't want it to tell me what to do.’ We spend a lot of time reassuring people that data is never going to make decisions for you — it's just the foundation that you can stand on to better make your own decision. … We don't use data-driven decisions. At NPR, we talk about data-??? decisions because that better reflects the fact that it is data and expertise together that make things magic.  - Steve (34:34)

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