Interview with Christian Broughton: How The Independent Uses Data-Driven Insights and Newsroom to Drive Editorial Strategy & Business Outcomes

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Publishers are tasked with strategic decisions about exactly what editorial content to create and how to create it in order to engage their entire audience. It’s a big challenge.

Recently, our CEO and Founder, Adam Singolda, sat down with Christian Broughton, the Managing Director of The Independent, to hear how they make strategic editorial decisions using data-driven insights.

The two discuss everything from their first informal meeting and Christian’s initial skepticism, to the evolution of Taboola Newsroom and how it’s become an integral tool for The Independent’s editorial team.

During the conversation, Christian offers several examples illustrating how those data-driven insights became impactful business and editorial decisions that were well-received by their audience.

Check out the first half of their conversation below! Don’t miss part 2 of the chat which is packed with even more useful insights.

Adam: My name is Adam Singolda. I’m the founder and CEO at Taboola. We are in Taboola headquarters in New York. In-person. Not on Zoom. Not from home. Not remote. Not hybrid, in-person. And with me, I have my friend and partner for the past seven years, Christian. Why don’t you introduce yourself?

Christian: Yeah. I’m Christian Broughton. I’m the Managing Director of the Independent globally. Um, and this is my first time in New York for two years after what seemed like a very long pandemic. And I’m very, very happy to come and see my friend Adam.

Adam: We’re going to talk about a bunch of things. And, um, you’re, you know, you’re the chief editor of the Independent.

Um, it’s such an opportunity for me to learn and talk to someone that comes from the editorial side and speak about the future of journalism and local news and national news and driving growth from the point of view of the editorial team. So, it’s, you know, it’s fair that I get that opportunity, so I’m looking forward to it.

Christian: Always.

Adam: Um, and I thought the way to kick off this session would be about how you and I met about seven years ago. So I’m not sure if you remember, I’m going, I’m just going to do it.

Christian: I remember most of the evening, but there’s a couple reasons why I don’t remember all that evening.

Adam: You are in a, you agree to go, um, to meet me over drinks, which, you know, I rarely get to have drinks with chief editors, and we had a bunch of martinis. And then I told you, you know.

Christian: Where was that? Was that Perry Street?

Adam: That was Perry Street in the West Village. Yeah, good memory. So, you do remember. And I told you, there’s something you don’t know about your business. I said, you know, looking at Taboola’s data, we just launched Newsroom, which was basically, was technology to empower editorial teams to A/B test creatives and things like that, but even more so to see what people on your site, your readers read when they leave your site to another network. And I told you, you know Christian, you don’t know this, but your readers love content about family and kids. You don’t cover that.

Christian: Yeah.

Adam: And your response was, we just met, mind you. Your response was, Adam, with all due respect, The Independent has been around for almost thirty years. Please don’t tell me we should be covering.

Christian: Oh, that’s such a horrible answer. Did I already say that? Oh, wow. Wow. Okay. Yeah. I’ve learned to listen. Sometimes.

Adam: I said, look, look, let’s not fight it out. You know, it’s just protected data.

Christian: It was, from my point of view there, I was meeting, I didn’t kind of know a huge amount about you. I didn’t know a huge amount about Taboola. We just started working together. I was traveling with some of the commercial guys over here on that trip, and they were like, oh, we’ve just done this big deal with Taboola. Do you want to come and meet the guy that runs it? I was like, yeah, sure. Okay. Yeah. Okay.

But, what fascinates me is for years and years and years, as a journalist, I’ve sat in rooms in like morning news conference or whatever, and it’s just a bunch of people who sit around, a small group of people, and they decide what is important that day in the news and what we should do. And it’s like top-down. There’s no insight, really. There’s just kind of, we all think it’s like, it’s not science.

It’s our, we’re kind of gifted in this way that we know exactly what our readers are gonna… You know, even though there are like a hundred million of them a month in countries around the world, we still somehow arrogantly think that we have this human instinct that will just answer all the questions. So, then I’m meeting this guy. And he tells me – he’ll take this wrong. I’m like, how do you know? And then you go, and then I think you got your phone out because you had that great graphic that Newsroom has with all the little bubbles.

Adam: Right, the bubbles.

Christian: And you’re like, well, I know this because this is what people are reading on the internet right now. I was like, okay, yeah, I see this guy. Maybe he’s got a good point. And then you followed up with your team. Your team came to see me back in London, and they were like, right, here’s the data that Adam’s talking about. Yeah, okay. I think we need to launch a parenting section.

Adam: And you did.

Christian: And we did. And we launched a parenting site. And it worked really well, so thank you for that.

Adam: I always use this example because it’s such a, you know, we’ll speak about it, but data is actually scary because there’s so much of it. And the biggest challenge, it’s almost that it can be a fad unless you know what to do with it. So like, in fact, join or activate data into something that can affect your business is the harder part. Capturing the data is not necessarily the hardest part. It’s what to do with it.

Christian: Well, it’s not for you because Taboola is in a really unique position on the open web, I would say. Like we will know, there’s a lot written about data in kind of walled garden environments. Um, and each publisher thinks it’s really good at data on its site, but what Taboola gives us is what our readers are doing on other sites as well. And there’s no way we can know that.

Adam: Right.

Christian: Unless we kind of, you know, tap into, tap into Newsroom, so that’s why we do it like all the time now. So all of our planning now, um, is heavy, heavy usage of Taboola Newsroom. So that’s how we ended up launching that parenting section, but now we’ve adopted Taboola Newsroom so much across the editorial planning side of things, but we’re using it, uh, to plan some really fundamental and super core, uh, new stories that we’re, that we’re doing.

They don’t come much bigger than, say, Afghanistan. So really serious heavyweight news stories, and it’s expensive stuff for us to cover. So, you want to make sure you’re staying on that story for absolutely as long as you’re journalism, journalism is powerful. And your journalism is powerful while it’s being read and it’s connecting with readers.

And so, every day, you measure the engagement in your Afghanistan stories, but what if you just got that day wrong? What if you just weren’t very good that day and you just kind of missed it a little bit. Um, much, much better to measure the engagement across a much broader selection of sites.

So what, what Newsroom enables us to do is to really see that interest of our, our readers specifically around the internet, just to see if we’re ready to, you know, stay on the story or, you know, face down the story, move on something else. You know, we do that. We do other kinds of things as well. So when we’ve got elections coming up, you know, are we writing about the specific politicians enough? The ones that our readers really want to research a little bit more, the ones they really want to look into.

So, you know, this gets away from the idea that a bunch of editors in newsrooms just decide what is the story of this election. And it’s just a real top-down thing from the editorial team. Well, actually, maybe your readers want to combine other subjects and combine other characters in the election, so what becomes the plan for something like the midterms is going to, it will start with Taboola Newsroom.

Adam: You know, it’s interesting to me that the biggest shift in listening to you is actually a cultural shift because it’s, you know, it’s, it’s blending art and science. You have people that, you know, for the last 100 years, have been working in a certain way. And I think doing God’s work, you know, covering the news that people need to know about so they can, um, you know, uh, make decisions for their own life.

And that’s why journalism is important, especially local news, a lot of times. How do you, how do you bring data to your organization in a way that it’s adopted and accepted? How do you measure that? What are the goals even from where you sit? And how do you make it not only comfortable and convenient for people to use but actually something they want to use and look forward to use to drive growth for the business?

Christian: Yeah, I think there’s a, you can get kind of data fatigue. You can just get too much stuff sometimes. And you know, there are so many competitive platforms out there. They all want to show you their piece of their KPI they think is going to drive your business.

I think one of the differences with Newsroom is you actually listened. So, it was very rare to meet someone from the commercial world who wasn’t talking to me about money. You were talking to them about what readers wanted. And you also, you and actually some other people in your organization did a very good job of listening. So how many years ago was it that you invited me down to Tel Aviv for yourself?

Adam: Probably four years ago.

Christian: Four years ago, that was a very fun time. Um, but it was also really important time for us because Newsroom was just really evolving fast at that point, really being developed. And I had a really good night speaking to the team that you introduced me to, who were working on that project. And they said to me, what do you want? What would actually move the needle for you? Um, and some of the actionable insights that came out of Newsroom came out of that conversation in Tel Aviv that night.

Adam: That’s awesome.

Christian: Um, you know, find me another like data platform provider that actually listens. That actually iterates their products according to what people wanted. I mean, they might say, yeah, we’ll put it on our pathway. And then, like six months later, a year later, it’s like, do I really believe they’re going to do this thing? Um, whereas then in Tel Aviv, um, we were looking at the alerts, like what data signals can actually, you know, trigger actions.

So, it might be something is really performing well. Uh, hey, this story is really flying; it’s not on your homepage. Or it might be, you know, this story is really performing well on your homepage, and you put this on social. Whatever it may be, just prompting the action. So don’t just tell me numbers, but there are loads of data platforms out there for newsrooms that would just say, hey, it’s like, you know, 1 million, three hundred sixty-eight thousand, blah, blah, blah. And you’re like, well, okay, fine, whatever. But what, what do I do with that?

Adam: So, it came to you versus you have to look at the graphs and things, and it made it, made it more actionable, more easy to use.

Christian: Yeah. So then, and now, especially when we’re working in a, in a, in a lockdown environment over the past couple of years, and everyone’s a dispersed team, you lose that little bit of chat in the office where someone’s just saying, hey, can you put that, you know, can you change that headline? Can you put that on the sport page? Can you put it on the homepage? Whatever.

And that kind of sense of really active curation, just inevitably, however, whoever, well, you try to replicate the atmosphere of the office and however you know good the people’s home setup is, you’re just going to lose a little bit of that communication, but actionable alerts really work.

Adam: I know for you, you know, going global, um, you know, out of the UK was a big priority. How would you say that data and those insights and those technologies kind of helped you evolve and expand globally into all the travel? We just talked about all the offices you have just in the US, and for you, that means traveling to so many places.

Christian: Yeah, yeah.

Adam: Talk to me about data almost as an enabler to go global.

Christian: Yeah, so, The Independent has its kind of core values that will be eternal and unchanging globally. They are the same globally. But when you kind of customize for a certain location, you don’t know what kind of sweetens the mix, right?

So the, the kind of hardcore news subjects are self-selecting to a degree, not always, but you know, to a degree. But then you can’t just kind of just give people news, news, news, news. You’ve got to find out what they’re interested in. And on that cultural level, it’s really interesting to look at the Newsroom data. So, you get, for instance, what TV shows should we cover, right?

Adam: In the market?

Christian: So, say US TV shows. We just did this recently. So, we were looking for growth opportunities. As you say, we’ve done an amazing job of growth in the past few years, but we want to get bigger and bigger. Um, so we’re now like the number one quality news publisher in the UK. Uh, we’re top 10 in the US, so the US is the big opportunity for us there. So it’s great. Um, so how can we get bigger there?

We’ve got to kind of, the growth is probably going to be driven from here. Our Head of Audience globally was in the UK, um, and was planning this out, and we’re in a pandemic. So like, you know, coming for, on a little trip, fact-finding over here is not really going to happen.

So, with Newsroom, we can actually see, actually some of your readers are reading about these kinds of TV shows a lot on the rest of the Taboola network. Or, you know, they’re following these sports, and sometimes, you know, you think you know this stuff. You think, you know, we’re pretty sure what we know about our readers, as I was back in that bar in Perry Street, over a martini.

Adam: Never forget.

Christian: Yep. Um, but it surprises you sometimes. I mean, I had no idea. I had no idea that, uh, our readers who are reading like politics and global affairs and stuff, they’re also reading loads online about like UFC. Like really?

Like the same people reading you’re like really serious current affairs stuff, really into like combat sports and stuff? Like yeah, they are. So then that presents a challenge back to The Independent saying, well, is it bright for The Independent to cover that then? And how should you cover that?

So, like, you know, Love Island, the TV show? It came up the way our readership – I think probably because our readership is – is just a little younger than a lot of our competitors. They’re really into Love Island. So, it’s like, right. Okay.

Adam: Like all of us.

Christian: Okay. Let’s, let’s…

Adam: To be honest.

Christian: Let’s drop the protest. We’re all into it.

Adam: I may or may not have seen an episode but please, back to you.

Christian: Are you familiar with the show? Um, yeah, so Love Island is great, and everyone loves it. Um, and it’s like, yes, it’s everyone’s guilty secret, isn’t it? Come on. But how should the independent cover that? So actually, we did some, we went really into it, and we wrote about like the social issues that come out of it and everything, so we kept it very brand, and we brought the brand of The Independent to that coverage.

But it gave us the confidence to do that. And actually, like, how’s that conversation going to go if you can’t prove the point? How’s that conversation going to go? When we had one of the things we did, we got the guy who writes a lot of the kind of op-ed stuff, like a lot of the editorials, like the most cerebral guy. And we have a conversation with this guy called Sean, and it was like, Sean, what do you want to write about? And he’s, he’s, he’s great. He’s really up for it. He, he loves it. He loves a bit of innovation. But Sean, how are you going to cover Love Island?

Adam: And how was that conversation?

Christian: It’s kind of a little bit like, really? Um, and you have to, it helps the conversation. You can say here’s some evidence that we’re not just, we haven’t gone crazy.

Adam: Our people love it.

Christian: And then we can say actually, and our people really loved it when you wrote about it because here’s that data too. So that was, that’s important. But, hey, I’ll tell you what was a really big challenge was we did a, we launched it in the pandemic. We launched The Independent en Espanol because, uh, really interested in overseas expansion to other languages. We’re in six languages now. Um, and the latest one of those is Spanish. So we’re looking at Latin American news cycles and the whole business model there. Because a, a year ago or so, um, I kind of changed roles, and now I’m very exposed to the business side.

Um, and what’s the business model of this? How are you going to have a newsroom for Latin America? And obviously, the first big resource you’ve got is you’ve got a ton of stories in the English language. So actually, which of those subjects are going to be good to let just translate and customize a little bit, but which things do you have to build from like zero? And there’s no better way, let’s take the art out, then let’s just go for science on that because it’s quite big decisions, quite a big money decision.

And so we use that to just see exactly what the audience wants from our content. And, you know, you just take, you just remove months of trial and error. And, you know, time is money, right? So you’re spending loads of money. It’s a bit demoralizing. You’re not really getting anywhere. You could do it that way. Sure. That’s kind of traditionally, you know…

Adam: How it’s managed.

Christian: Magazines, newspapers they kind of launched on hunch. Right? Some of them work, some of them don’t. Like, should we take the F, should we take the kind of failure options out with that and just like go straight to success? It’s much better.

Don’t forget to watch the rest of Adam and Christian’s chat. Part 2 is coming soon!

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