What might work: Writing a book

What I’m listening to as I type: The Order Of Time

I’ve been writing a book. It’s why you haven’t heard from me for a while. The clue was in the previous post (crikey, a whole year ago!) about my trip to The Washington Post. Anyway, the book got done and I am SO over getting up at 4am to write.

The book, ‘Future Journalism: Where we are and where we’re going’, sits on a wobbly seesaw between academic tome and creative nonfiction. Nice things have been said about it, which is gratifying. But the point of this post is to summarise some of things I found during my look at the raggedy edges of where journalism might be going.

I started on the book in January 2016 and finished writing it in January 2017. And what a goddamn crazy year to try to write about journalism and its possible futures! Here’s a slide I used recently to sum up that craziness:

FutureJournalismYearSlideOne of the things I focus on is change and why it happens, and I use the analogy in the book, and in my teaching, of the big truck of change. Think of it as a front-wheel-drive truck, with technology and behaviour pushing the speed, and markets and regulation chugging along behind, sort of stabilising the load.

When you get a monster truck of change, like Facebook or Google, those wheels are even bigger; the traction even faster. Technology and behaviour driving things forward, but the bigger and faster the change, the more likely you’ll get market slow-down or government regulation drag.

As part of the research for the book, I interviewed editors or founders at the Guardian, The Washington Post, Vice, BuzzFeed, Narrative Science, Bellingcat, and Circa, to get a sense of how things have changed in both traditional news companies and with the new media kids on the block. To give you a flavour of the changes I saw… here’s another slide:

FutureJournalismInterviewsSlide

Vice is also interesting. It started as a sort-of community magazine back in 1984, and has grown into a mega-multi-media company operating in 30 countries and with its own TV news shows on HBO and YouTube. And if you’ve never seen their stuff, it means you’re probably not their audience. Like Buzzfeed, they’re focused on getting to the people they want to reach.

A lot of my focus was on the use of new technology in journalism – AI, AR, VR, 360, games, and so on. And robot journalists of course. But you’ll already know that when journalists write about robots  we’re usually talking about AI or algorithms, rather than the walking-around stuff. We don’t have any robot journalists, at least not yet. Probably because there isn’t the money in journalism that there is in defence.

journalist-robot-recentHowever in 2010, one lab did experiment with a robot journalist of sorts. Put Intelligent Systems Informatics Lab’s ‘journalist robot’ in a room and it would work out what’s going on by exploring its environment – gathering data to assess what’s unusual – the ‘anomalies’ that all journalists look for.

It could question people in the room and search the internet to find out more. If something seemed newsworthy (against pre-programmed ideas of what is news), the robot could write a basic story and publish it to the web.

What it couldn’t do was open the door of the room afterwards and leave it.

We can teach a robot or AI to mimic curiosity using techniques of discovery or interrogation to find out what’s going on, but can we teach it to be curious?

And we can – and are – teaching AIs to use journalism tropes the five Ws, the inverted pyramid, etc. to construct a readable story. Something for journalists and journalism teachers to ponder. News is what’s happening, journalism is discovering what might be happening. It’s becoming easier to get non-humans doing the news bit, so we should focus human efforts on the journalism bit is.

Media outlets are already using “robot journalists” in the form of algorithmic software or AIs to produce stories. In 2013, Narrative Science’s algorithms produced and published around 1.5 million amateur sports stories. In 2015, it was over four million. Mostly Little League reports read by a few families.

Automated Insights produced 1.5 billion stories in 2016. Mostly internal information for companies and individuals rather than broader business news. The Washington Post used its in-house AI software to produce thousands of real-time news reports about the 2016 Olympics. Syllabs automatically produced 150,000 web pages for Le Monde in four hours during France’s 2015 election, reporting results from 36,000 municipalities

We shouldn’t see these as technologies that will take jobs from journalists, but as tools that could help journalists report more of what’s happening, and to concentrate a bit more on the ‘why’, rather than the ‘what’ or ‘who’.

robotfinally

I mentioned earlier about the way new media companies such as Vice and Buzzfeed are trying to engage a younger audience in news.

Young people may not read many newspapers but that doesn’t mean they don’t read news. Most 18-year-olds see more news than 1950s teenagers did because the world is constantly interrupting them; constantly pricking their social bubble via their smartphone. The issue is not whether young people see what’s going on in the world, but what they choose to take notice of.

So how do journalists get their attention? There are two basic answers to that question.

The first is report on the subjects that a younger audience is more likely to be interested in.
The second is to report on subjects in an interesting way.

For example, both BuzzFeed and Vice target that millennial audience and both told me that a massive subject area for them is mental health.

It’s not that traditional media isn’t covering mental health issues, but coverage is focused on mental illness and disability – the experience an older audience may have of autism among their children, or dementia among their parents.

Next, engage them by covering issues in a different way. A funny headline; a quiz, a video, these all help but the core – as with all journalism – is to make people care about that story; that lived human experience.

Immersive journalism pioneer Nonny de la Peña creates VR projects to give people first-person experiences of a situation. This image is from one of her VR pieces – Project Syria which puts you in the middle of a rocket attack and a refugee camp:

syria-1200x682In ‘Inside the Haiti Earthquake’ Andrea Nemtin and Ian Dunbar place us in the role of aid worker or journalist or survivor caught up in the 2010 disaster, and we make narrative choices ‘playing’ as that character.

One area that particularly interests me is the integration of games and news – it’s my next research area. But real game mechanics, as opposed to a quiz or bit of a puzzle – isn’t being used in news yet. Juliana Ruhfus, at Al Jazeera, is one of a tiny handful of journalists using actual games in news, with work such as Hacked and Pirate Fishing.

But it’s the work being done by independent game creators such as Lucas Pope and 11-Bit Studios in tackling news issues, or gamemakers such as Camp Santo or Chinese Room to build emotionally-immersive worlds, that interest me. They show how we might create empathetic journalism using games as the medium.

So we’re in a new journalism matrix. Of reporters and journalists and bloggers and citizens and algorithms, and a whole bunch of things that gather the news, and another whole bunch of things that deliver the news, and another bunch of things that help the news get to where the audience is spending its time. I said it had been a difficult year to write about the future of journalism. It was but it was also tremendously exciting and interesting.

transmetropolitan3

Yep. I’m a Spider Jerusalem fan. Transmetropolitan Vol 1: Back on the Street

 

Throughout the year I thought about and worried about the profession and the role of journalists and the media itself in undermining the value of journalism. I came up with five predictions – or possibly hopes and aspirations – for the future of journalism.

  1. The fight for journalism will have to start with redefining journalism
  2. Truth is more important than we realized. Journalism has to be ready for a fake news backlash
  3. Worries over “fake news” will morph into concerns over news “have nots” and “want nots”
  4. Journalism will need its AI helpers
  5. Google and Facebook will have to take their role as news publishers more seriously

The news industry has lost the trust of much of its audience, and unless we can rebuild that trust, we’ll lose more of our audience. The starting point for recovering that trust will be to define journalism so that our audience will be able to recognise and value it. We have to redefine what journalism is and what it is capable of, to re-establish why journalism is necessary.

Legacy news media which choose to only reflect the protectionist, nationalist views of older people are fighting over a generation which will die out. Newer media such as BuzzFeed and Vice, trying to reach that younger generation by reporting news that matters to them, will have to win the battle to reach that follow-on audience for news before it loses faith in journalism.

A re-assessment of journalism as being fundamentally about discovering and reporting truth, with a commitment to avoid bias, will make it easier for an audience tired of “news lies” to find real journalism. And make it easier for journalism to defend its purpose against governments and agencies increasingly using ‘fake news’ as a stick to regulate all news.

We could argue that there have always been news “want-nots” and, from the early 20th century, a majority public swayed by the bias of majority media. But the issue now is two-fold: a majority media that has become more biased, more skewed towards directing rather than informing public opinion; and publics spending more of their time within filtered news bubbles.

The challenge for journalism will become less about filtering out fake news and more about how to reach people with real news.

Journalists are never first to new technology, what we do is find a way to use technology that has become, or is on the way to becoming dominant.

Mobile phones became a tool of the trade as well as an extension of the personal. Similarly, when personal AIs become mobile (instead of stay-at-home devices such as Amazon’s Echo) and more developed (as opposed to the still clunky Siri, Cortana and Google Assistant) they’ll become personalised assistants we not only use, but become emotionally attached to.

Journalists will use their personal AI to help research and deliver stories. But more importantly than that, AIs could do the heavy lifting in grading and delivering news. Rather than stop the signal by imposing legal responsibilities on news carriers such as Google and Facebook, use the processing opportunity of AI to grade it.

Journalism needs to be around the table as AI is developed, to become part of who determines and controls the values that will be built into AI as it becomes the next big shift in communication technology.

Google and Facebook as responsible news publishers? That’s a given. At a TED talk back in 2004, Page and Brin talked about Google’s responsibility to provide the “right” information: “we view ourselves like a newspaper or a magazine – that we should provide very objective information”. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has said his company is not just a technology company but also a media company – just not a traditional one.

But accepting their role as news publishers also means accepting the responsibility for news’ role in democratic societies. The web is being corralled by big tech companies, while news businesses compete with each other for the public’s attention. For journalism to deliver on its higher democratic purpose it needs to be seen outside of the business of news as non-competitive; a product necessary to a society advancing, rather than just functioning.

Those big tech companies need to do more than take their role as news publishers seriously, they need to take responsibility for helping journalism step up to that higher purpose.

PS: You can buy my book here:  Future Journalism: Where We Are and Where We’re Going  : )

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.

What didn’t work: newspapers

What I’m listening to while I type: Sea Sew

I’m not saying that newspapers are dead: individual newspapers will continue as businesses as long as the ratio between cost and revenue makes sense for the owner. But as a business model, we really are looking at the endgame.

Last week, Newsweek announced it was to end its print edition and go online-only in a bid to cut “legacy costs” attached to producing the printed product. Reports suggested $40m annual losses (one day I’ll do a chart showing how $40m/£40m is the default for stories mentioning newspaper losses), although other writers suggested it was that Newsweek just wasn’t good enough.

The same week, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger was spitting bricks over a Telegraph story suggesting he was fighting to save The Guardian’s print edition against pressure to switch to online-only. It’s a story that surfaces periodically, not least because media commentators don’t believe The Guardian can turn around its £40m (yup) annual losses before the business runs out of money entirely.

The issue is that the cost of producing a newspaper has outstripped earnings from newspaper sales since the 1880s. Since when, the business model has become almost entirely dependent on the delivery of an audience to advertisers – and the valuing of that audience according to both demographic and size.

But the problem the business model now faces is that the assumption that equated size of audience to share of advertising revenue has been overturned by the shift to digital. Online audiences don’t deliver sufficient revenue because the advertising industry pays less for digital ads compared to print. The usual quote is that $100 advert offline = $10 on the web = $1 in mobile.

While 43 percent of Guardian News and Media’s readership is online, the company makes only one fifth of its income from digital. The Daily Mail is the most popular newspaper website in the whole wide world yet raises just 2.6 percent from online advertising. In May this year, the Daily Mail was selling 1.9m newspapers a day, but had 5.6m web visits a day. Despite web audience trouncing print, the Group’s news websites earned just £12m against £171m for newspaper advertising.

As Rusbridger tweeted in response to the Telegraph story: “Numbers for going digital only & junking print just don’t add up”.

It’s not just about newspapers having a business model dependent on (falling) advertising, but having a business model that separates product from sales. News is not the product that newspapers sell. News is an attractor: the attention attracted by news is what’s being sold.

 

nestle

In the next village to me is a big Nestle factory. When I walk the dogs, I smell the coffee. Nestle makes Nescafe, KitKats, pizza, icecream, petfood, babyfood…The branding is in the products, the quality is in the products. You know what to expect from a Yorkie; you know whether you like Dolce Gusto coffee.

The business model is that you buy the Nestle products you like, and 130 years ago that was the business model for newspapers. You don’t pay a monthly subscription to drink Nescafe. Shopkeepers don’t give you free KitKats in the hope that you’ll read the advert for insurance on the wrapper.

(I’m making the assumption here that it costs less to make a KitKat than Nestle sell it for. Unlike newspapers).

For newspapers to survive people have to want to read a newspaper. Whether you’re selling adverts or newspapers, you still need readers. But just how many newspapers you have to sell also relates to the size of the business you’re trying to support. The problem isn’t just with the newspaper sales model, but with the scale of the companies that run newspapers.

Newspapers are increasingly a by-product of the global corporations that run media businesses alongside successful insurance risk services (DMGT); contract printing (Trinity Mirror); TV stations, websites, magazines and nursing services (Gannett); TV, Hulu, publishing, Australian rugby league (News Corporation).

If all you need is to make enough money to pay a handful of staff and the print and distribution contracts, you don’t have to sell a lot of newspapers. It’s a model that still works at small-scale or local. But share dividends, company cars, pension schemes, city offices, ad campaigns, a $33m salary for the boss, well it adds up.

Am I saying newspapers can’t be big business? Yes, I am. But I’m not saying that newspapers can’t make money.

I am also saying that you can’t have a business branded by a newspaper but make your money selling insurance and running care homes. Eventually, the insurance-sellers are in charge and the loss-makers are cut or axed.

More importantly perhaps is that you can’t be a big, global, multi-purpose company and still expect to dance like a butterfly and sting like a bee when you’ve got a fight on your hands. As newspapers have now. As tech-VC Fred Destin puts it:

Most corporations are defined by the quality of their planning processes, which in turn become objectives against which execution happens and achievements are measured. Corporate behemoths, faced with change, stumble and fall. In fluid markets where everything can be priced and exchanged dynamically, startups thrive. They are the elemental unit of a cloud economy, highly adaptable and insanely good at one thing. But large corporations cannot adapt at the speed necessary to remain best of breed in all aspects of their business.

Here’s what I think we do with newspapers: we forget what we know about selling newspapers and look at what we’ve learned from the web.

The web is incomprehensibly massive and global yet personal. It’s like driving a car – we shut the door and think we’re the only ones on the road. It doesn’t matter how big the web is (or how few companies are running it); we travel around it according to our personal roadmap of interests.

A couple of weeks ago I challenged my entrepreneurial journalism students to come up with something they didn’t like about the news – a problem that needed changing. Each problem they raised came back to one thing – the news wasn’t personal.

It wasn’t that they only wanted to read the news that interested them, it was that they couldn’t easily access news they might be interested in.

The profession of journalism has been based on how to deliver news that most people would want to know. But most on the web is most products, most choices, most information, most of our friends, most people like us, or most like the thing we’re searching for – ie most of the things one person wants, in one place.

Apply that to news and you get most of the news that interests me, and some of my friends, and some people with the same interests as me – without me having to look for it. Does that sound like a newspaper to you? And then there’s that other bit – the things I don’t know that I might want to know.

So, given another run at investor funding , here’s what I’d do instead of launch a newspaper: I’d build what Facebook could have become on April 6th, 2005.