Opinion

Stories I’d like to see

Value of big data, news on Newsweek, White House Correspondents Dinner’s costs

Steven Brill
May 6, 2014 12:46 UTC

U.S. President Barack Obama is shown on a screen as he speaks during the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner

1. What’s the real value of big data?:

The Obama administration’s report last week on the need to consider restricting how Google, Facebook and other Internet powerhouses collect and use big data reminds me of a story I’ve been hoping to see for a while: How much does this collecting and slicing and dicing of big data actually help advertisers and marketers?

I get the idea that a woman who lives in New Jersey and has accessed information online about baby carriages makes a great target for advertisers selling other baby or maternity products. But do marketers really benefit from data that they buy that goes way beyond that — that zeroes in on what other websites she has been to, where she buys what online, where a location service says she has physically been lately or whether her Gmails refer to different products or subjects?

Two years ago, I was in an audience of media and marketing people mesmerized by a presentation from a Yahoo data expert who promised that his firm could target, to take one example, “men who had shopped online for a BMW and also been to a New York Giants football game in the last year.”

Each of those attributes might be worth something. Does putting them together really matter?

Maybe. But I’ve never seen a story that delves into the costs of using all that multi-grain data compared to the results it produces. How much more expensive are different levels of targeting compared to the results they actually produce? When does the big-data-based super-targeting become not only a privacy issue but also an expensive, alluring technology solution in search of a problem?

Press-dinner proceeds, cat-and-mouse China reporting, testing the testers

Steven Brill
May 15, 2012 12:24 UTC

1. The White House Correspondents Dinner: How much for charity?

Two Sundays ago, Tom Brokaw used an appearance on Meet the Press to attack the increasingly over-the-top annual gathering of press, politicians and Hollywood stars and hangers-on known as the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Brokaw called it “an event that separates the press from the people that they’re supposed to serve. It is time to re-think it.” Incoming correspondents’ association president Ed Henry of Fox News quickly tweeted back that the dinner, which featured among other celebs Kim Kardashian, “raises TON of $ for needy kids who might not get into journalism w/out help.”

Really? The association’s website lists just $78,000 for 15 scholarships in 2012, plus one scholarship whose amount is not listed. Assuming it’s about $6,000 (a bit above the average for the other 15 scholarships), that would be $84,000 in scholarships. Plus, there’s a $30,000 grant listed for a high school mentoring program. Yet this year’s dinner, according to an association board member, sold “nearly” 2,700 seats at $250 each to various media companies. That would raise over $650,000 for the dinner, compared with what, again, looks like $84,000 for scholarships and $30,000 for mentoring. That’s a total of $114,000.

Moreover, on the page where the website lists the scholarships, the correspondents’ association names 18 donors who are thanked for their “generosity.” The donors include Bloomberg, Time Inc and Thomson Reuters, and they seem to have given to the scholarship fund apart from buying dinner tables, or at least the website makes it appear that way. If so, wouldn’t these deep pockets have already come up with some or all of that $114,000 “TON of $” before the dinner was even held? That’s only a donation of about $6,000 each. Which would mean that the revenue from the dinner had little or nothing to do with the scholarships.

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