Sramana Mitra: The problem with technology companies developing tools for the media, especially for whom you call data journalists, is that they just don’t pay.
Stew Langille: I agree. We found that as well. We came from Mint.com. When I was creating data warehouses, I also ran the marketing team. We took a similar approach to a dealer type in terms of using our data [as] an asset for both branding and the public good – communicating to people and educat[ing] them. This was part of the core values of the company. I would communicate this data to the media and say, “Look, we have data that shows that people are eating out less in restaurants during recession, and this is the primary drive of increasing the personal savings in a country. If there is one thing anyone can do, it is to stop eating in restaurants. This is by far exponentially more powerful than anything anybody can do.” It is the hidden secret of our generation – where are the public savings issues related to eating out in restaurants? We had insightful data on that, and we turned that to media and consumers and then published it – it would be awful.
At the same time, we got to a point where Visual.ly was exploring ways to monetize the business. We looked at the marketplaces and developer tools for journalists – we didn’t want to play poker, either. Since they didn’t want to pay, either, they tried things in-house, but it wasn’t working, and it is not going to work. As an entrepreneur, it becomes a real challenge. The way to do it is build for the brands, and you make it possible for the companies to showcase their data, as we did at Mint or as other companies have done.
SM: I think the way to play the media is to help the marketing and PR departments of brands to develop their infographics and then feed it to the media. I don’t think you can actually sell to the media and make any money.
SL: It is a real challenge. The media is sometimes unreasonable in terms of what they want and the pricing. Their business models are tough, but there are many companies that make a lot of money and do quite well. The media is just a break-even proposition for them. They do it to sell more terminals and to have more influence [...] We are going toward the other side of it. I think the media needs more tools to develop data, but I don’t think they are going to pay for them.
SM: I would not recommend for anybody to build tools for the media. It is a losing proposition.
SL: I agree. I had the exact same experience as you have. I learned the hard way.
SM: Is there anything else that you would like to cover in this conversation?
SL: If you are looking at the huge growth in big data and data visualization, I would like to hear thoughts or insights you have.
SM: We are doing this entire series. If you keep an eye on my blog, you will see that we have “Thought Leaders in Big Data” interviews published every week. If you are looking for what other people are doing in this industry, this would be a good place to keep an eye on.
SL: I think that is great, and I also think that big data is going to become more important because ultimately the way we are driven by is sharing. People want to share messages that have a concrete basis. If you properly source the data – if you don’t only source from Wikipedia – then there is nothing wrong in sourcing it from a company that may get some kind of brand exposure from it. It is not necessarily the brand that is creating a story. That is what I am saying. It could be referencing of data. If you are a good storyteller – like someone who is in the media telling a story – I think you should feel comfortable referencing information. You can do your own research, and you can evaluate the facts. Data for the public is not going to be universally available by public institutions. A lot of the data in our lives is going to be behind doors of companies. We are going to have to access that and do our own job in terms of filtering it. At some point, it is inevitable.
SM: Thank you, Stew.
SL: Thank you for your time.