What might work: AR, VR, and cool stuff at the Washington Post

What I’m listening to as I type: LEMONADE

 

I’m sitting in Jeremy Gilbert’s Washington DC office, trying not to look like a girl – scratch that – a middle-aged academic, as I bounce clumsily, and a little queasily, around Mars.

Gilbert is letting me play with Mars: an interactive journey, the virtual reality (VR) project for Oculus that the Washington Post published in March this year. Developed by staffer Chris Davenport in a project team led by Gilbert, the VR ‘tour’ of Mars takes Nasa’s scans of the red planet’s terrain, extrudes them, adds satellite pix and a little magic sauce, and creates a pretty real experience of what going for a stroll on Mars might be like.

It’s impressive as a content-led project, with an extraordinary level of research and detail underpinning the result, but, like other VR projects produced by news publishers recently, it all feels a bit, well, worthy.

“We did do one thing with Mars which we didn’t end up publishing”, Gilbert tells me. “We allowed people to drive the Rover around, which people found incredibly compelling but we had a hard time making it story telling. People wanted to drive the Rover because they could drive the Rover, not because driving the Rover helped explain the conditions on the planet or why people are going there or any of those things.”

Journalists decided that the job of a journalist was not just to show the world but to explain it sometime round about the 1880s, not long after interviewing became part of our toolkit. Instead of only saying what we saw, or reporting what we were told, we started asking questions (Schudson, 2001) and journalism began to develop as a craft and a profession – and a responsibility.

Personally, I felt the Washington Post’s version of Mars lacked Pokémon.

Gilbert’s role at the Post is Director of Strategic Initiatives. Which means he gets to do all the cool stuff – once:

“I typically do things that either are good enough for someone else to run in the future, or are complete failures and we won’t do that again for a while.

“One third of what I do are things that the top editors tell me to do, the things that we need done – Marty Baron and my boss Emilio Garcia-Ruiz. One third are things that I think of that I find interesting and seem like they have potential, and one third of the things are things that the journalists around the room say: “You know, I have an idea, can we do something like this?”.

The next cool stuff thing he showed me was a 360-degree video package, shot in the Galapagos. Gilbert and a team of staff travel writers. editors, with specialist producers from UNC School of Media and Journalism, spent a week in the islands collecting the video and source material. The result was published on the Post’s website in May.

It’s beautiful.

I swam with the fishes.

washington-post-galapagos-screenshot

And yet, like the Mars VR, beautiful but not quite there yet. My eye couldn’t settle – on the sidebarred text; on the stills; on the embedded video (all seamlessly attached to data points in the text). As a travelogue making me want to try the real location, it worked. As a piece of storytelling, not sure.

But as Gilbert explains, the challenge for new journalism is to learn how to work with non-linear storytelling (and, perhaps, an audience that is itself learning how to ‘read’ and get value from a broken-up story).

“Our expectations as journalists really have to change”, he said. “That we often think about ourselves as the people who bring you the perspective on an event, live or otherwise, and we tell you what matters, and here we are basically saying we’re going to create a space, especially in a virtualised environment that is not 360-video.

We’re dropping you in a place that we made and letting you do whatever you want, and in whatever order you want, and that’s a very different way of storytelling.”

jeremy-gilbert-twitterThis is what drives Gilbert – the possibilities of new storytelling. His background – with kings of interactive National Geographic, and at Northwestern University with the team that went on to found Narrative Science, is rooted in experimentation with narrative forms.

And he, and the Post, is going deeper and deeper into testing and trying new forms: “We’ve started to talk about if this is spherical video scene, can we actually offer different paths out of the scene into different spherical videos?” He tells me about a project the Post is working on with the University of Texas, at Austin, to add code to video scenes which will respond to eye-tracking, i.e. where the viewer is looking.

“Right now we can annotate [a video scene] by in essence burning on say some text and we can position it exactly on a video.

“But what the University of Texas is helping us do is to say: if the user’s eye is here, their gaze is in this direction, we can fit something that’s within their gaze and not attached to the video. So not using After Effects to burn it in, but rather tracking as the mobile device or the headset moves.”

They’re also using automated storytelling to speed up reporting on the US elections, and have been looking at using Bluetooth beacons to geographically trigger extra information, extra reporting, to attendees at events such as the election conventions. But Gilbert works on tools to support the day-to-day news operation too; showing me a freelancers look-up site they created.

“I really do three kinds of things: I do projects that are about creating better tools for journalists I do projects about creating better forms for news consumers to get their information, and I do projects that are trying to better connect people with information about distribution. So creation, consumption, and distribution.”

Two projects in the news consumption and distribution categories showed what the Post’s writers are capable of, given the freedom (and resources) to marry their specialism with experimentation in delivering very complex stories.

The interactive Waypoints package creatively tackles the story of migrants arriving at the Greek island of Lesbos.

While the masses of material collected by court and crime reporters around the Freddie Gray trial, was translated into an app making use of augmented reality (AR), and released on the Post’s site on on app stores in May.

freddie-gray-app-washington-post

The arrival at the Post of Jeff Bezos in 2013, as new owner, has delivered a good chunk of that freedom to experiment. Pouring money into the newsroom has, Gilbert acknowledged, helped (“we’ve hired a bunch of new journalists, we’ve hired a ton of new technologists”) and delivered a “pervading sense of optimism” in the Post’s future which has encouraged experimentation.

But, as Gilbert reminds me, previous owner Don Graham was pretty on the ball too: “He was on the Board of Facebook, so it’s not like he didn’t get it.” (Indeed as Kirkpatrick recounts in his book, The Facebook Effect Graham almost “got” Facebook itself, coming within a phone call of buying a big chunk of it in 2005)

“Don Graham knew much, much, much more about how to do great day-to-day journalism because he had grown up in this newsroom than Jeff Bezos may, but Jeff Bezos knew a whole lot more about operational speed. And he really understood how the right kinds of algorithms and the right speed of the user experience could lead to a massive digital audience.

“So I think the combination of a newsroom that already had a pretty good sense of how to tell stories, with a person who really knew how to build a big digital audience, it helped. That definitely helped.”

The Post took on around 100 new people with Bezos’ backing. Being able to invest in journalists and technologists “at a time that the economy wasn’t so great” and there were lots of great people looking for jobs was also a boon, said Gilbert. That investment pushed the Post past arch rivals the New York Times, to hit record-breaking web traffic last Autumn.

“It’s tricky because what’s the lesson for other people? There aren’t that many Jeff Bezos’ out there who are willing to invest heavily, and be fairly removed in terms of the day-to-day storytelling; letting the journalists do the storytelling they’re capable of doing. 

“If everybody had one [a Bezos]  that would be good for everybody. But in the absence of that, I think it’s hard but crucial to do these kinds of experimentation. But for a lot of people it has to come at a higher cost than it does for us.”

 


 

I met with Gilbert, as part of research for the book I’m currently writing on Future Journalism. The book, commissioned by Routledge is due to be published early 2017. If you’re interested in taking part, please tweet me.

What has to work: journalism by journalists

What I’m listening to as I type: Quixotic

 

My grandson will sometimes tell me: “I’m sad, nana.” That he says this is in itself a pretty joyful thing because he has autism, and for him to recognise and describe his emotion as ‘sadness’ is reassuring.

But today, I’m right there with him on the sadness meter.

I shouldn’t be. I’ve been commissioned to write a book and have spent the past week plugging in the first set of interviews – including a trip to Washington (I’m going to West Wing land!) and time with the extraordinarily helpful team at the Washington Post. The book, provisionally called ‘Future Journalism’, will pull together everything that excites and interests me about the business of news and give me an excuse to pick some very bright brains.

But today, thinking about that phrase ‘Future Journalism’ and my investigation, I feel sad.

Not the ‘future’ bit, I don’t for one moment believe journalism doesn’t have a future. While the future for current business models delivering journalism shifts and changes, and for many individual examples has collapsed (goodbye Indie newspaper, goodbye Spot.Us, goodbye Circa…), I don’t believe that news depends on newspaper owners.

Nor do I believe that the slow death of newspapers (beautifully captured in Will Steacy’s photo-essay) has meant the slow death of journalism.

Will Steacy's project photographing the Philadelphia Inquirer. Click image to see more.

Will Steacy’s project photographing the Philadelphia Inquirer. Click image to see more.

 

But I do think there’s a slow death of journalism going on and that the fault isn’t (or isn’t just) about collapsing ad revenues and expanding production costs, the responsibility is also ours: we journalists, we editors, we journalism teachers.

For every Spotlight or Snowden, there are hundreds of complaints about The Sun’s poor journalism and the Daily Mail’s dangerously misleading stories, and dozens of academic papers highlighting biased-reporting across our media.

 

Press Complaints Commission search March 31, 2016

 

Hell, even Obama blames us for Donald Trump.

We’re the people misusing statistics, or ignoring the tougher questions, or repeating the not-true story. It’s our job to get the journalism right – we shouldn’t need quangos or bloggers or Hollywood to remind us of our personal responsibility to integrity.

And we should not accept that the people we serve trust Wikipedia more than journalists, or that 64% of young Americans don’t trust what the media says, or that journalists are rated as only marginally more honest than bankers and builders. I couldn’t care less about click-baited headlines or celebrity-focused front pages, but I care that we’ve enabled that loss of faith in journalism.

You might argue ’twas ever thus: Kirk Douglas’s excoriating 1951 portrayal of truth-bending journalist Chuck Tatum as example.

Ace In The Hole - 2

Except it isn’t so very long since faith in journalists was the reverse of those 2015 surveys. The 1956 American Election Survey found 66% of citizens believed newspapers were fair, and in 1972 people had more trust in CBS anchor Walter Cronkite than in the president (source).

Public faith in a journalist’s ability – or willingness – to tell the truth has collapsed alongside, and almost as quickly, as the profession’s business model. We have to deal with that.

In my second week as news editor at a Northern daily, a woman rang the newsdesk and spoke to me about her missing teenage daughter. She’d been missing before but never as long as this. Her mother was worried about her daughter hanging around with young Asian men. She thought her daughter was drinking and maybe taking drugs; she’d lost control of her.  The police weren’t interested and social services had stopped answering calls from her. She didn’t know what to do.

You know where that story ends up, and I’d like to be able to say that when I took that phonecall to conference it kicked off a journalistic investigation that put horrendous human beings behind bars. But the reality is that we didn’t jump in until establishment voices – a courageous MP, police officers – started saying there was a story.

Spotlight wasn’t only about the story the Boston Globe journalists uncovered, it was also about a story that had been missed the first time around. We’re human, we’re busy, we have a lot of space to fill. But for journalism produced by journalists to have a future, we have to show our public that we’re more useful than Wikipedia and way more trustworthy than their accountant.

 

trust

What will work – journalism’s future

What I’m listening to as I type: Wounded Rhymes

Twice a year I give a lecture to journalism students on where I think journalism is going.

For obvious reasons, I rewrite the lecture each time I deliver it. Often minutes before I deliver it. It’s also more interactive than I can show in a post, but this is it, pretty much…

First, two videos – one from 1981 and one from 2011, to illustrate how the technology of delivering the news has changed in thirty years:

Now the one from 2011 – apologies for the music…

What I love most about the first video is that the pioneering souls who took part in this radical e-newspaper experiment had to cut out a coupon and post it back to the San Francisco Chronicle!

But what’s most interesting is that this happened in 1981 – ten years before Big Tim’s worldwide web went public.

The 2011 video focuses on what already today seems a limited range of news gathering tech. However,  the changes haven’t just been technical – twenty years on from the birth of the web  it’s the social change in the way we consume news that has had the biggest impact on the business of news.

The process of journalism has changed alongside our behaviour. We expect news we’re interested in to be available to us whenever we want it and wherever we are. The business of making money from journalism has had to fit into an open-all-hours, shop of news model.

 

Still from multimedia immersion rap videoRemember the picture above from the 2011 video, illustrating what’s happening to newspapers’ profits?

More accurately, what’s happening to the business that journalism depends on – which is advertising. The traditional business model for journalism, hasn’t been to sell journalism but to sell the attention the journalism attracts.

Here’s a better representation:

US newspaper ad incomeThe chart above, reproduced on Prof. Mark Perry’s economics blog, shows how quickly the money is disappearing – US newspaper ad income in 2012 was the same as in 1950. But the cost of producing a newspaper isn’t the same as in 1950.

The picture isn’t any different in the UK – 2012 should have been a bumper year for selling ads; the Olympics, the Jubilee, yet national newspaper ad spend actually fell by five percent in 2012 and dropped further in 2013.

TimetopanicIt should have been a neat equation – money from ads offline – in newspapers, magazines, on TV and radio, goes down but online ad income goes up to fill the gaps.

Except for every new dollar made online, newspapers lost 10.

The issue is that it’s not the traditional media companies making money from online ads, it’s the new kids on the block – Google, eBay, Amazon, Facebook, etc. But mostly it’s Google:

Google Ad Revenue Now More Than U.S. Print Publications CombinedHowever, we’ve been here before. The news industry is always changing. Like a snake shedding its skin every few years. Right now it’s changing faster than ever – driven by that technological and social revolution in the way we communicate and share news and information. There’s a another big change we’re living through  – the mobile revolution.

Radio took off because it’s mobile – it went with us in our car, our office, our home.  When it stopped being a piece of living room furniture; when it became small enough to take to the beach, radio took off and its content changed with its new users.

Now we take our mobile phones with us and what we carry – our phone, our handbag – is part of who we are.

The rise of mobile use is extraordinary – driven faster by its usefulness as a social web device:

  • Half the world now owns a mobile phone
  • One-in-seven people across the globe are on Facebook
  • 3bn hours of video are watched each month on YouTube
  • Over 60% of smartphone/tablet owners read news on it
  • Up to 24,000 pictures a day were sent to BBC during riots
  • 17% and growing of all web traffic is now through mobile

 

Putting global mobile use in contextChetan Sharma’s chart, above,  shows how the 6bn mobile accounts globally (not 6bn people with a mobile phone) compares against other things we might need. There are more mobile phone accounts than people with access to safe drinking water or electricity.

We love our mobiles but we wouldn’t love them quite so much if they didn’t deliver things that were more important to us than electricity, or bank accounts, or the internet.

So, will mobiles save the news industry?

Nope. Again, some businesses are making good money from mobile ads but not the news industry.

This is the sum (from Michael Wolff) that’s generally used to explain the problem: $100 offline = $10 on web = $1 in mobile.

The news industry, with its the ad-dependent business model, just can’t make enough money. The value of ads is worn away with each technological iteration.

But if you have a business model like Facebook’s,  where it costs comparative peanuts to generate all the content your users want (because it’s your users producing the content) you don’t need to charge  much for your mobile ads to make money.

So, the news industry is at this stage:

Running round like headless chickens

But why am I telling you all this? Why should profits and charts matter to a room full of student journalists?

  • Because you should know where the news industry is going.
  • Because  you need to know where journalism is going (and how you go with it)
  • Because the industry and the journalism may not be going in the same direction.

But mostly because journalism matters and because journalists matter.

There are stories that still need to be told. There is so much news that isn’t getting reported, or not reported well enough.

Here’s a handful of lesser-told stories I picked to fill just one slide:

  • Half of all under-5s that die, die in southern Africa.
  • Four-in-ten children globally don’t survive their first month; one-in-three children starve to death
  • WW2 didn’t stop wars: 51 wars and major conflicts in 1992; 21 in 2002; 38 in 2011… around 34 today.
  • More people have been killed in genocides since 1960 than died in WW2 concentration camps
  • 17 countries have higher life expectancy than UK
  • Over 45k UK homes will be repossessed this year.

The journalism needs to be done. It doesn’t matter what’s happening in the news industry or to advertising profits. We need good journalism. We don’t need rewritten press releases (or regurgitated content with 25 headlines).

And journalists matter. They’re still out there fighting and sometimes dying to bring in stories:
1017 journalists killed since 1992Not just ‘trained’ journalists – citizen journalists and netizens on the ground in conflict zones. The biggest change the web has delivered in news is the range of people delivering news.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger describes it as ‘open journalism’ – a shared activity with journalists, readers and others delivering and developing the story. I love the Guardian ad:

Journalism is still about having the skills and drive to find the story – like the reporter in his pyjamas in the Guardian ad talking to his contact.

It’s not about the technology, it’s about how you use the technology to become a better journalist how you use all these new tools to help you tell the stories that need to be told.

I’m going to finish with four predictions – the things I think are on the horizon for journalism.

  1. More news stories originating in computer algorithms, eg Narrative Science
  2. News will become more personal, more locative, and more recommended –  eg Summly, Buzzfeed, Facebook news feed…
  3. Journalism split further into similar and short-form vs different and long-form – eg Medium, Matter
  4. We’ll move away from devices to everywhere access to news and info – google glass, iwatch..

Narrative Science uses computer algorithms to turn data – business information, sports reports submitted by amateurs, into news stories.

We’ve made that easy by writing, and teaching, journalism ‘rules’ and  journalese. Every time your player “attacks” the goal or your “sick” youth “knifes” your “OAP”, you – we – have made it easier for a computer to write the story.

We don’t yet have a ‘tripadvisor’ news recommender, but every app or curator that that sorts through existing news to give you only what you say you’re interested in, is making you more conservative, less curious than you should be.

We used to go to our news source. We would walk up to the TV, or go and buy a newspaper, or sit at the PC. Then we took it with us – the radio in the car, our laptop, our mobile phone. Increasingly, it’s wherever we are – waiting for us to arrive and ask for access. By tapping a table, or waving a sleeve, or nodding our head.

Google glass is currently in semi-public testing and will launch in 2013. There are all kinds of issues around privacy and usability but it’s still very new.

As you watch this  last video, think about where Google glass and other wearable tech could take journalism? Think about what you will do with everywhere, real-time access to gathering and uploading information. Think about who will see what you do.