Civic Intelligence: How news organizations can use BI & AI to Move Beyond the Static Infographic & Make Millions in the Process

Infographics are great to clearly and concisely communicate often complex concepts visually. And while a well-crafted static visualization is truly worth a thousand words, an Interactive infographic/dashboard is worth 10,000!

Unfortunately, today:

  • Data journalism tends to be the province of the few self-trained geeks in the news rooms comfortable with Excel, Access & Tableau.
  • The overwhelming majority of infographics are static charts and maps that lack drill-down or other interactive/personalization capabilities so users can’t easily explore and understand how the issue impacts them.

The good news is, the ultra-competitive $18-billion-and-growing-analytics market:

  1. Is bringing more powerful and easier to use tools to the market to help transform data into visual stories.
  2. Is making it easier to deploy not just static charts but interactive applications to the cloud so that users can both see high-level trends and drill-down/explore to find personalized insights.
  3. Needs new marketing channels to highlight the capabilities of their solutions and differentiate themselves against the competition.

These three trends present huge opportunities for news organizations to:

  1. Leverage business intelligence tools that incorporate artificial intelligence, smart data discovery and natural language generation to deliver better insights/civic intelligence to their audience with less work and training required.
  2. Drive audience engagement with their brand because users can explore and personalize the information themselves instead of just viewing a static image.
  3. Avoid your text being copied and monetized elsewhere, since users have to come to their site to interact with the application.
  4. Accelerate their journey toward becoming software/solution providers instead of just content providers.
  5. Potentially reap tens of millions of dollars and get assistance from software companies interested in showing off their products’ capabilities to millions of potential customers.

Delivering civic intelligence

The BI Bakeoff at the Gartner Analytics summit this March really highlighted the opportunity to apply artificial-intelligence and business- intelligence software to deliver civic intelligence.

Cindi Howson, the BI Bakeoff  & Scorecard queen, had the software vendors analyze Department of Transportation data to understand what’s drove the spike in 2016 traffic accident deaths.

The demos demonstrated the ability of how data journalists can use today’s BI tools to create and publish interactive visualizations and stories. And how artificial intelligence will enable even non analysts to identify key correlations and outliers with very limited training and work.

Check out Cindi’s blog for links to either videos or actual “dashboards” to explore the different capabilities and insights each provider discovered.

While all of the dashboards could have been more user friendly, they all gave great insight and the ability to personalize the information by state or other variable that might be of interest. The two that you can actually play with are:

  • Tableau: They created the most intuitive and visually pleasing story
  • Microsoft’s Power BI: I really liked how they embedded an Interactive car Infographic as part of the overall story.

For large organizations looking to figure out who to partner with and understand market trends, Cindi’s incredibly detailed knowledge of all the major’s vendors platforms, is probably worth the cost of the Gartner subscription alone. For those on a budget, you can always find a free version of the Gartner BI scorecard to get some insights about the different players in the market.

Show me the money!

The conference also highlighted how competitive the fast growing the $18 billion market is, and the potential opportunities news organizations have to partner with different vendors looking to show off their products’ capabilities.

After all, what better advertisement is their than for vendor’s potential customers to interact with an online information app on their favorite news site that is powered by IBM, Microsoft, Tableau, SAS, etc.. Today IT vendors pay millions of dollars to sponsor sports and other events that don’t even show off their capabilities. Imagine, what it would be worth for them to put their product in the hands of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of users.

My guess is that for organizations like CNN, the New York Times or the Washington Post, this could be worth tens of millions of dollars annually. And for news organizations, it’s a way to deliver better value to your advertisers and audience. In fact, I bounced this idea off a few vendors and their eyes lit up at the potential.

The future is so bright

But in order to take advantage of it, news organizations and journalists will need to think differently and:

  1. Embrace their roles as technology companies providing civic intelligence and engagement solutions.
  2. Leverage the cloud and modern BI tools to move beyond the static infographic.
  3. Partner with cash-rich software companies for money and expertise to improve their value proposition and bottom line.

Banks leave millions on the table by not integrating psychology and education to help people buy, instead of renting, homes


The article in the Commercial Appeal about Memphis being a hot spot for flippers and families paying more to rent than own highlighted the failure of banks to innovate.
Reading the article made me wonder, why don’t banks:

  • Really think of themselves as life partners helping their customers successfully navigate through life’s major financial challenges?
  • Why do banks leave educating potential homeowners to non profits?
  • Why aren’t banks offering classes, savings clubs and savings games/products that leverage peer pressure, gamification, laziness and education to help people save?

All it takes is a little empathy, understanding human behavior and creativity combined with human-centered design to identify profitable ways to really help people and make millions in the process.

Banks could host a weekly home ownership club, similar to a book club or a Tupperware party, where people learn and commit together to save. And the bank can offer savings apps and products to help people reach their goals, sort of like Mint but specifically designed to help people save their down payment, e.g. automatically allocating a percentage of their paycheck to a down-payment fund. And as they hit milestones, the bank along with their marketing partners, E.g. Home Depot, Ikea, Realtors, and others who will benefit once they become homeowners, can reward them with gift cards, etc. along the way.

And since the banks will have been tracking their clients progress, they should theoretically have better insight to their reliability, beyond just their credit score and pay stubs.

Maybe my ideas are way off base, but after reading the article, I can’t help but believe there has to be a better way to help hard working Americans become homeowners.
First Tennessee, Regions Bank, iBank and others, what say you?

Or maybe some banks are doing innovative things to help their customers become homeowners. If so, I’d love to hear about them.

Best Buy Offers Free Warranty Service & Opportunity to Differentiate from Amazon but Instead Hides Service From Employees & Customers

Did you know Best Buy will deal with your warranty issues for you, as long as you bought the computer there and it’s still under manufacturer warranty?

Unfortunately, I only discovered this after already having spent months trying to get Asus to either correctly fix or replace my daughter’s 9-month old laptop.    

If I had have known that instead of having to buy computer boxes, spend money shipping it, deal with manufacturer incompetence, I could have just taken it to my local Best Buy and avoided all the hassles, I’d never shop anywhere else for a computer.
But I didn’t know.

 In fact many of their associates don’t know this and Best Buy never advertises it as part of their value proposition. It’s not mentioned on their receipts. It’s not on any in-store advertising.  It’s not mentioned anywhere prominently on Bestbuy.com. It’s not mentioned anywhere.

And yet they offer it. But I only discovered this after visiting different Best Buy stores as we tried resolving the issue with my daughter’s laptop not working even after Asus supposedly fixed it.

And now after three failed attempts by Asus to fix the laptop, and twice sending a cheaper and wrong-sized replacement laptop, dozens of hours on the phone,  I’m still trying to get an adequate replacement six months later. 

When I think about the contrast in potential experience, I get furious. 

  • Best Buy: Stop by on way back from work, walk into store, wait in line a few minutes, talk to a real person face-to-face and come back in a few days. If there is an issue repeat process, if need be escalate with store management in person.
  • Asus: Call, get put on hold, talk to someone in the Philippines, get an RMA number, go to FedEx Office, pay for laptop box and shipping, wait, get laptop shipped back, discover it still doesn’t work, call ASus tech support, talk to First level support, get put on hold while waiting to get transferred to second-level support, repeat process multiple times. Then starting in January, ask for replacement laptop, go through entire process all over again, only this time spend an between 30-45 minutes or longer going through level 1&2 support to get to level three support because there is no direct line to level three. And then they promise you a replacement, but what they don’t tell you is that they can’t just send you a new computer, they can only send you a refurbished or returned computer and that they don’t actually have any inventory available, so you spent weeks waiting. And then instead of sending you a 13.3-inch laptop, they send you a 15.6-inch laptop because that’s all they have in stock. And so you call and repeat the process all over again. And again. And wait. I could go on with a lot more gorey detail but suffice to say it’s March and my daughter still doesn’t have an adequate replacement, but at least I now have an email to communicate with a 3rd-level supervisor. Yet still we wait.

Best Buy could have saved me money and time and earned a customer for life, if I had have known I could have driven by my local Best Buy on the way from work and just dropped it off; no muss, no fuss.

So why  doesn’t Best Buy highlight this service? 

Don’t know but their missing out on a great opportunity to leverage their stores to differentiate on service instead of just competing on price. 

So Best Buy, how come you don’t highlight this service?

And Asus why does your support suck so badly? And what are you going to do to improve it?

Software Eats The News: Will Nextdoor Eat Local Media?

In 2005 I tried raising money to develop a platform for connecting people with their neighbors, public services, politicians and deliver personalized news, real-estate and other high-value content and services. At the time I was the sole breadwinner with three small children rapidly going broke after working at a struggling startup so I shelved the concept and found a job.

And then just the other day I discovered that my city is now using Nextdoor as a news, communication and civic engagement platform. After reviewing their vision, funding and penetration I believe Nextdoor is now positioned to execute on what I envisioned 12-years ago and revolutionize local news & civic engagement.

So instead of worrying just about Facebook, journalists need to be thinking about their Nextdoor strategy.

So what makes Nextdoor special?

  1. Their use of mapping-technologies to mirror and connect physical communities.

2. Building civic engagement tools to enhance communication between public agencies and the public they serve.

How is that different from Facebook and local media?

  • Traditional News approach: Journalists curate everything and publish to non/low-interactivity platforms so impossible to connect and hear directly from neighbors, politicians and public entities. Journalists and sections may be focused on specific communities but since space and journalists are limited, features very little actual local news/information.
  • Email, Facebook & Twitter: You can connect and engage directly with other community members, government and politicians but connecting is extremely inefficient as you need to find and connect one-at-a-time with each person or organization. Also since birds of a feather flock together it leads to people primarily connecting and engaging with friends and folks who look and sound like you. And neither provides sophisticated civic-engagement tools.
  • Next door provides a much more efficient GIS/ address-based platform that automatically connects you with your neighbors and public agencies. Enter your address, and then through the magic of geocoding and mapping software, Nextdoor finds the city and neighborhood you reside in, applying physical geography to the virtual world. Next they provide tools specifically designed to connect public agencies they serve.

So what’s that enable?

Delivering truly-localized/personalized news and engagement based on the many different political and civic spaces/boundaries you live in.

You belong to not just a specific neighborhood and city but to many geographically-defined government and civic areas, e.g. City council districts, county council districts, public-school attendance zones, state and federal representative districts, public-utility, non-profit and business-service areas, etc.

Nextdoor by using mapping technologies, can now connect you with not just your local police but all of your geographically-specific political, educational, business and non-governmental organizations.

Instead of landing on either a generic screen or an information bubble of an algorithm-chosen feed, you can view both news stories and updates from your elected officials, public servants, favorite non-profits and local businesses.

And news orgs could either integrate or build their own geo-enabled platform and deliver personalized news to you. So instead of just getting a story about the city council, you could see exactly how your representative voted.

What does this mean for journalism and news orgs?

The opportunity: A new platform for delivering local news to a built in and engaged audience.

One of the reasons Patch failed and why local news sites struggle is that the World Wide Web is organized around interests, size and discrete facts, not geography.

Entering your address in Google displays info about your specific house but little about your neighborhood.

Enter your city and it tells you only information at the city level.

Go to your local news site and you may get the option for info about your local neighborhood but almost nothing about regional, state and national decisions with local implications and participation.

A geo-enabled information architecture using real-world boundaries provides an entirely new method of discovery and organizing information.

And this represents a huge opportunity for journalists to deliver localized content on the Web to a built in audience via Nextdoor.

The threat: It also represents another threat to local publishers that don’t adopt a geo-enabled platform and approach to news as they lack the personalization and integration capabilities of Nextdoor.

After all, much of what passes as local news involves public affairs announcements, and now that residents can easily get that info direct from the source, it’s one less reason to subscribe or visit a local news site.

Nextdoor also represents a new competitor for advertising dollars, further eroding the economic model for local news, especially since advertisers will be able to target down to the specific address level. Having worked for a real-estate information service provider, knowing a users’ address enables you to target them for all sorts of mortgage, insurance and home-service products specific to the house, e.g. you can see when their house was refinanced and target them with refinancing offers with fairly solid info about the interest they paid vs. now.

So what will Nextdoor do next?

I have no idea as I’ve never spoken to them, but as someone who envisioned similar concepts over a decade ago, I’d:

  1. Build more and more integration points into local public services and political establishments, so Nextdoor becomes your one-stop shop for civic engagement.
  2. Provide two-way communication and organizing tools to enable residents to give feedback and create conversations with both their neighbors, their elected officials and other public-service agencies.
  3. Allow media partners to post their content on the site and enable them to leverage the platform to deliver personalized news in exchange for a revenue share. And since Nextdoor controls the platform, they will determine the deal structure.

What should news organizations do?

Decide whether they want to be content organizations feeding other people’s platforms or whether they want to be information technology organizations that provide civic engagement and intelligence solutions.

  1. If you want to just provide content, then focus on trying to be the first on your block to negotiate a deal so you don’t get locked out. If I were Nextdoor, I’d be putting out RFPs and getting news orgs to compete for placement.
  2. If you want to control your own destiny and compete from strength, integrate geo-enablement capabilities into your content management systems, develop a geo-enabled information architecture and geographically-discrete content.

The challenge is that for 99.9% of the world, even for software developers, the previous paragraph is pure gobbledygook. The only reason I understand it is because I minored in geography, took several GIS courses 20-years ago, have 20-years of software experience and built MyRepresentatives.com as an after-hours public-service project that began providing address-level personalization for Memphians. (Unfortunately we had to shut it down due to work and family constraints.)

If you’re interested, let me know and I’d be happy to explain in more detail how news orgs can leverage geo-personalization to increase both site and civic engagement.

Software is Eating the News: Are you in the in the Entertainment or Work business?

work-vs-entertainmentRight now, news organizations still haven’t really clarified what business they are in and/or what their audience is really looking for, as a result they often measure and focus on the wrong things.

Information technology businesses fall into two primary categories:

  1. Entertainment: The goal here is to help people have “fun,” to spend their downtime with you. And the more time spent with you the better. It doesn’t really matter whether that time spent makes them a better or worse human being, helps the planet, it’s fundamentally about entertaining people. Think Facebook, Pinterest, movies, gaming, etc.
  2. Work: The goal here is to help people take action and solve problems, whether pay their bills, stock their pantries, lose weight, learn new skills, influence public policies. In this case, the goal is to often spend the least time possible, as the primary thing you care about is the outcome. Traditional B2B software and Google search falls primarily into this category; you’re not using it for fun but to get the task done as efficiently and effectively as possible, and the less time spent the better.

So are journalists and news organizations primarily in the entertainment or work business?

Traditionally, they have straddled both worlds and as a result have muddied their value proposition, measure the wrong things and apply the wrong business models.

Additionally, what one segment of the audience and what journalists’ often think of as entertainment, others often think of as work, politics being one of them.

work-vs-entertainment-politics

In the entertainment world, your goal is to get people to spend as much time with you as possible, since the whole point of your existence is to fill people’s free time. In this scenario, display advertising as a revenue stream and products that encourage spending time make sense.

In the work world, your goal is to minimize the amount of time people spend with you and instead give them the answers to their problems, or eliminate their problems all together. In this case, the less time spent on your site/application is often better, since the goal is to increase their time. In this scenario, display advertising makes absolutely no sense and products that don’t solve problems are bad.

work-vs-entertainment-metrics

So should news organizations focus on delivering more entertainment value or more work value?

And that will be a question for another day. 🙂

Software is Eating the News: Chapter One of The New York Times 2020 report

Hats off to the New York Times for both creating and sharing the “Journalism That Stands Apart” report.

It’s great step forward, but it fails to fundamentally refocus the Times from being a content-generating publisher into a public-service solutions/IT organization that helps our nation and world make better decisions, create stronger communities and collaborate more effectively.

The report still felt very constrained by both:

  • The NY Times content-centric missionnytimes-mission
  • And the technological, organizational and business-model constraints of the printing press-era which are defined by:
  1. One-way communication platforms that require experts manning expensive equipment to create and distribute content.
  2. Limited space, personalization and sharing.
  3. Non-existent search, linking or ability to take action within the platform.

The end result is that the report, while moving the Times forward, fails to move the Times and journalism into the software/Internet era and expand their overall opportunity space.

As an undercover Chicano, Knight News Challenge Semifinalist and former journalist turned software product manager, who is horrified by what’s happening under Trump, this report and the state of journalism is incredibly personal to me.

Just a few of initial items I’ll be focusing on are:

  1. How software is eating journalism, why and how to adapt
  2. Using GIS/mapping concepts to personalize political coverage
  3. Going face-to-face with Facebook by transforming comments into curated conversations
  4. Building civic engagement software that connects the public with public institutions
  5. Transitioning from data journalism to information product management
  6. Applying product management principles to compete at the portfolio, platform, product line and story level
  7. Leveraging text analytics and survey software to move beyond small-sample surveys
  8. Creating customer journey maps to help drive coverage, identify issues and generate solutions for your communities
  9. Designing for busy, lazy and diverse audiences

And whatever else comes to mind.

Today we’ll start with item #1 from the 2020 report:

ny-times-become-more-visual

It’s not about becoming more visual, it’s about helping people make better decisions more easily!

Graphics and visuals are just one small part of that goal. The Times and journalism in general needs to break free of the article format and instead focus on the best ways to help your audience make decisions.

Sometimes that will involve writing an article, using graphics or even video, or sometimes it will involve delivering software to provide interactive and personalized insights for users to find their own answers.

Unfortunately, since journalism is defined as writing, the news world revolves around the article, and everything else is an appendage to it. However, articles, while great for sharing high-level concepts and evoking emotions, are not currently personalized and fail when the story gets too complex, i.e. involves too many people, facts and figures.

The fundamental problem is how the brain functions. It has three types of memory:

  1. Iconic Memory: Where sights, sounds and other senses are first processed. Information stays in here for less than a second, but our mind is able to identify certain items instantaneously, even before our conscious mind is aware of them, e.g. length, movement, color, etc..
  2. Working Memory: The brain’s RAM. Unfortunately we humans can only hold small amounts of information in our working memory, e.g. names, dates, etc.. so as we learn new facts, we either forget what we learned previously or we need to move the information into our long term memory, which takes a lot of effort.
  3. Long-Term Memory: Where we store our information for later use.

The key takeaway is that our working memory only holds small amounts of information, so we need to design our information products in ways that make it easy for us to absorb and manage the content being presented, i.e. stories are great for communicating themes and conflict, but don’t work so well for delivering lots of facts and figures.

Once we have more than two or three protagonists, keeping track of who said what and did what to whom takes more work than people are willing to invest — and as a result leads to lower recall and a poorer user experience.

I highly recommend Stephen Few’s blog for more insights into the human brain and data visualization.

And while static visuals help, they still lack the interactivity and personalization capabilities modern software and people expect.

Provide civic intelligence & analytics tools to the public

One of the great white spaces and where news organizations have a real competitive advantage if they can rethink of themselves as solutions/IT organizations is to provide the tools and platforms to help people and communities make better decisions.

Many of us, including journalists, use business intelligence/analytics software within our business, but almost no one outside of TV meteorology departments provide it as a news/public-service offering on an ongoing basis. Data journalism, occasionally delivers public-facing products, but is primarily about building and massaging data sets for internal analysis, with the results being transformed into a static story and graphic for publication on the Web and paper.

As someone currently leading the development and rollout of customer-facing analytics tools for hundreds of thousands of users around the globe, this has always struck me as one of the great overlooked news opportunities.

It’s not just about providing a map about the planned subway routes, but using GIS/mapping capabilities to help people discover the various issues and opportunities with the different pathways for themselves, and how the decisions might impact them, their communities, businesses and friends.

It’s about allowing users to not just read a story about school tests scores and see a visual about the overall trends, it’s about users being able to see the trends for their specific schools and how they compare to years past and other schools. Articles, photos and videos help provide the context and bring people to life while the information application gives us the “facts” and numbers we need to make specific decisions.

And news organizations already have an existing model in the weather business. The meteorologist helps provide context about what’s going on. And then the forecasting software gives us the maps and forecasts specific to us.

Imagine if instead of a meteorologist with the latest tools, we had general assignment reporters without the latest and greatest Doppler radar technology helping us make weather decisions.

Envision an early spring evening when you turn on the TV news to find out the details of a dangerous storm heading our way so to decide whether your family should take shelter in the closet or not — and instead of a meteorologist giving you detailed visual information about the storm track and intensity, reporters with no meteorological training were interviewing various “experts” about the storm.

“Yes, it’s going to be a dangerous storm,” exclaims expert one.

“Well it shouldn’t really be that bad unless you’re in the impacted areas,” explains expert two.

“There you have it, it will be a stormy night,” explains the reporter.

Instead, you have come to expect trained experts using advanced analysis/visualization tools showing you the intensity and storm track so you can make potentially life or death decisions.

Unfortunately, this model only exists in TV news weather departments, but it’s a model well worth exploring in order to provide more value and help people make better decisions more easily.

So while better visuals are important, providing better tools and trained experts to help people make better decisions more easily, is what people expect in the information age.

Software is Eating the World and Journalism too!

Marc Andreessen’s seminal 2011 piece Software is Eating the World explains how almost everything is being digitized, strengthening the agile and slaying the slow.

eatingthe-world
And in 2015, news publishers agreed to publish their articles directly on Facebook. Oops?

So how do news organizations avoid becoming the next Borders?

Is it to stick to their knitting and focus primarily on their print assets as media columnist JackShafer argues in his piece “What if the Newspaper Industry Made a Colossal Mistake?

newspapers-made-mistake

While the stick-your-head-in-the-sand-and-pray strategy might seem nice, I think Jack Welch’s quote  “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” highlights the small flaw in this argument.

So why is it that news organizations, some of the earliest adopters of the World Wide Web, are struggling the most?

For the same reason that Kodak, the inventor of digital photography succumbed to digital photography. Instead of adapting their organizations to the new technology, they tried to adapt the new technology to their existing organizations.

In the case of Kodak, this meant going from being a chemical company to a software, camera and ultimately mobile computing company, an almost impossible feat. The chemical plants that used to be their greatest assets, became anchors that drowned them.

So even if news organizations have developers and designers and deliver mobile-first content, they’re still stuck pursuing paper-based strategies in a software and Internet world.

So why are news organizations still stuck in the past?

new-york-times

Two hundred years of history is hard to change. Regardless, of the adoption of mobile, video or virtual reality the basic approach to news hasn’t changed in over 200 years. The news business is a slave to a business model built on the Tweet of the 19th century; the article.

Before the printing press made distribution relatively cheap, there was no such thing as an article, only books, letters & legal documents. Then along came the printing press, and suddenly the idea of private citizens creating throwaway publications as a way to deliver information became a thing. And the article was born. First accompanied by drawings and then later by photos.

And with the advent of radio came audio stories and recorded sounds. Finally visual news came into being via theater and later TV.

The defining traits for all these technologies are:

  1. One-way communication platforms that require experts manning expensive equipment to create and distribute content
  2. Limited space, personalization and sharing
  3. Non-existent search, linking or ability to take action within the platform

So how did these constraints define news and journalism business?

With space being limited to 30 minutes of airtime or 30-60 print pages the entire product was built around disappearing content with no regard to long-term reuse/access since the content viewing and storage mechanism were the same, i.e. the story was both stored and viewed on paper or TV screen.

In the physical world, the costs for adding each additional page or minute of airtime are fairly linear, so the goal is to maximize the limited space with enough high-quality content that people engage with the product but not so much content that it impacted the profitability.

The other key factor about the news business, is that it’s based around disposable/disappearing content. Since the distribution mechanism is also the storage mechanism, i.e the paper or news program, there is little to no value to build long-term content since it either goes in the trash or disappears when the segment is over. As a result, “news” has been defined as throwaway content with little thought about creating content or an information architecture designed to support reuse.

Since space was limited and needed to be constantly refilled,  and since  high-quality content was required to attract and retain customers then it made sense to pay people, journalists, to write stories. Since the primary skill required to fill the space was to be able to tell a story in text or moving pictures, journalist and writer became synonymous.

journalist

Allowing the non-paid public to write anything more than a letter or an occasional op-ed piece meant devaluing the concept of being a journalist and the product they sold. Since the barriers to entry were so high, companies were able to transform the businesses into local and national information monopolies, duopolies or triopolies to be managed for maximum profitability not growth.

And since the technological underpinnings of the business didn’t really change for decades there was no real need for a product management/development organization.  So by the 70s  newspapers and news in general had become culturally-inbred cash cows focused on continuity and maximizing profitability, not growth, for investors.

And then along came the Internet….

The key technological traits of the Internet era are:

  • Infinite personalization: Every screen and item can be personalized just for you.
  • Unlimited space: Every news article ever created can be fit on a single hard drive.
  • Endless interconnectivity: Anyone can connect with anyone anywhere. Distance doesn’t matter.
  • Almost effortless sharing: Words and images can be copied and shared by anyone anywhere without any costs and capture the value of your work.
  • Simple self-service publishing platforms: Any amateur can publish professional quality stories, images & videos
  • Instant Interactivity: The Web doesn’t just deliver information, it enables action, ordering a toaster or organizing a mob.
  • It’s the platform  stupid! Static content can be copied but server-side software can’t.
  • The Network Effect: Each additional person, company and system added to a gravitational platform increases the gravitational pull in an ever-self reinforcing cycle.
  • Active participation: People are no longer content to just be passive participants ingesting pushed information but want to be active contributors to conversations and drive change.
  • Interactive Analytics: Instead of static reports, you can filter and query to see information just the way you want

And just like in every other industry built on outmoded technologies and business models, software is eating journalism and the news business.

The current response: Building faster, better & cheaper buggy whips

buggywhipsad-300x251Given the cultural inbreeding and the institutionalization of what news and journalism are both in academia and in newsrooms, the inability to respond effectively is not surprising.  To date, the changes by news organizations have really been around leveraging technology to do more of what they have already been doing but faster, better and cheaper.

Faster: In the past news organizations competed on speed, trying to beat their competition by getting the story first.  Unlike Wall Street where milliseconds can mean millions, being a few minutes faster than the competition on a commodity story generally won’t reap significant financial rewards.

Better: Since Journalism is all about telling stories, news orgs are adopting new expensive story-telling technologies such as Virtual Reality or building a multimedia experience ala Snowfall to compete against the ocean of free content.

Cheaper: Leveraging AI to write stories ala the AP using AI to generate sports stories (actually innovative) or more frequently cutting staff and wages to drive down costs while pushing their people to write more, blog more, tweet more, etc. more.

The problem with all of these approaches is that they are all about optimizing horse-and-buggy businesses,  instead of developing new automotive-enabled industries. In the IT world, it’s known as paving the cowpath, using new technologies to enshrine old approaches to the world, instead of changing the organization and processes to get the most out of the new possibilities.

If you can’t fight em, join em! Embrace your status as a solutions and information technology organization

The Germans didn’t just demolish the French and Brits at the beginning of WWII because they had tanks and planes, but because they had people who could think differently about using them and saw how they could redefine the battlefield to surprise the enemy and play to their strengths.

So instead of figuring out how to optimize outmoded technologies and processes, news organizations  need to adapt their missions and organizations to the new information battlefield.

The first step to fighting back and winning the war for both the public good and and corporate profits is to embrace the fact that you are in the solution and information-technology business whether you want to be or not.

And in order to be successful as a solutions/IT company, news organizations need to expand their mission and  playing field to capture the new opportunities and defend against irrelevance.  

Move beyond content to enabling insights, action & community collaboration to capture new opportunities and avoid irrelevance

Once you move beyond just documenting the world via articles to providing solutions your opportunities expand a thousandfold.  Take advantage of the gifts that technology gives you and shift your primary mission from just documenting the world to becoming public-service platforms enabling insights, action & community collaboration to make the world a better place.

Why Public service? If you’re not in it for the public service, then you’re nothing but a PR and advertising firm. Journalism at its core is all about public service and the moment that that gets lost, then nothing else matters.

Why Platform? The battle is not about the individual article or one newspaper or another, it’s about competing platforms. Anyone can publish, but the platform determines the user experience, profits and impact. While text, images and even videos can be copied and shared almost anywhere, software platforms provide the  additional interactivity and value required to be economically viable and socially impactful. Relying on Facebook’s platform means they control the conversation, your future and profits.

Why enabling insights? The goal of almost any article is provide insights, to help your audience to understand a little bit more about the world and make decisions about where to live, travel, send their kids to school, what medicines to take, who to vote for. In the past, the primary model has been through the publication of an article, video or even infographic, but modern analytics tools provide so many more ways to help people make decisions. Unfortunately, while news organizations use business intelligence tools internally they’ve almost completely failed to adopt them to provide insights to their audience.

And even when news organizations create decision support tools, since they don’t view themselves as being in the analytics & information business, they fail to monetize and support these products as products.

Why action? When I wrote about kids killing kids or about how the lack of local witness/victim-protection programs force people like “Jose” (not his real name) to live in fear with a bullet lodged next to his brain   while his shooters walk free,  it wasn’t because I just wanted people to go, “that’s interesting.”  I wanted them to take action and make a difference. Software enables you to transform enragement into action, whether donating online, reaching out to their representatives, sending complaints, expressing their gratitude, etc…

Why community collaboration? We are a social species and so not only does the Internet allow us to take action by ourselves but it enables us to organize our friends, neighbors and countrymen to work together to make a difference. Instead of just writing articles about people coming together, we can actually help people come together to create better communities.

Together, this combination provides fills an unmet need, delivers an incredibly powerful value proposition and represent a massive market opportunity. Instead of being content companies competing against every other publishing platform and anyone who can write, you are now providing value Facebook doesn’t and competing  in a fragmented space against primarily homegrown, smaller software companies.

Coming soon: How to go face to face with Facebook and succeed in the conversation business