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.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be using my community journalism and software product-management experience to critique the report and the opportunities for news organizations and journalism to create more robust businesses and communities.

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

 

Alternate Reality Vehicles: Bringing Virtual & Augmented Reality to Technology Deserts


Virtual reality must be experienced to imagine and execute upon the possibilities it brings, but if you never get a chance to experience it, how can you leverage it?

And if my hometown Memphis and other communities like it are going to be able to participate in the future, we need to experience it before we get left behind yet again. Ultimately, what we need is a massive investment to deliver low-cost high-speed Internet and high-quality technology education to every corner of this country, but in the interim, why not create Alternate Reality Vehicles packed with high-tech tools and talent to experience and create virtual and augmented-reality content.

Just imagine an RV packed with the latest and greatest content creation and experience tools and piloted by passionate professionals and volunteers bringing thousands of dollars of equipment and experience to schools, community centers and corporations.

After all, just as we’ve used mobile clinics to bring medicine to healthcare deserts, and food trucks to fill our bellies, why not use Alternate Reality Vehicles to help bridge our technological divides.  While far from a panacea it would at least be a mobile oasis bringing a taste of the future to our technology deserts.

Thoughts? I’d love to work with others to see what we can do to help bring the future to Memphis.

 

Event Calendars: A Key to Community Engagement & Winning the Content Wars

Providing local residents an online event calendar is one of the most basic yet poorly executed components of community journalism.

So this morning, I went to the CommercialAppeal.com site on my tablet in search of events, and I couldn’t find it,  so finally I grabbed my laptop and after much searching found it buried in the entertainment section and then proceeded to get further frustrated with the search and overall usability. And then I went to see how I could submit an event, and the experience deteriorated even further as the site passed me off to a 3rd party to create the event.

I’m sorry but if news organizations can’t execute their local events calendar with any quality, then they have no right to survive – and honestly won’t and here’s why:

  1. Events are the ceremonies that help communities come together. Whether they be city council meetings, PTSA meetings, volunteer opportunities, community concerts, athletics events, TED Talks, you name it, community events are key to community life. And by not leveraging modern technology to help foster community, you are failing in your public-service mission.
  2. Event information validates, excites and engages your audiences. If you are hosting information about my event and helping me market it, then it gives me a reason to engage with your site and for me to market your site. And unlike Facebook, having your event “featured” on a news site provides validation as well, building a sense of connection to your organization.
  3. Content costs are nearly zero. Since the event organizer is entering the information, news organizations only need to screen for quality and not actually write up the events. This is the reason why Facebook is so profitable because they just provide the platform while others provide the content.
  4. Local events are a key to competing for a local audience. Today there is no single site or source for local event information, both pre and post event. Since so much of what news organizations are all about, this represents a perfect opportunity for news organizations to combine their brand equity, editorial skills and technology to differentiate themselves.

 

So what makes a great online event calendar?

  1. Comprehensive: Instead of forcing people to go to multiple places, allow them to go to one place for everything. It’s not just an entertainment calendar. It feature’s every local event for every type of local organization, neighborhood associations, school events, city council meetings, city planning meetings, sports events, meetups, chamber meetings, afterschool events, you name it.
  2. Intelligent: Users shouldn’t have to work very hard or at all to find the events and information they are looking for. Users need to be able to easily filter and find events that matter to them so the categorization options need to make sense to the users and offer a mix of open ended and fixed filters.
  3. Lazy: Help people be lazy and successful. Users should have information pushed to them on a regular basis and the option to have reminders embedded in their calendars so they don’t have to constantly search for options.
  4. Interactive: Ask users for feedback about the events they attended as a way to deepen the user engagement and transform the site into just a calendar into a conversation and drive engagement.

In order to succeed, news organizations will have to think of themselves first as  civic intelligence and engagement platforms that combine traditional journalism with design thinking and technology product management to develop new ways of informing and empowering their communities.

 

Naiveté Key to Starting any Project

At work I was recently asked, “Kevin, What’s was the secret to get your project funded?”

So I looked in the mirror, and quickly realized it wasn’t based on looks, and instead after much thought replied, “Naiveté, creativity, persistence & luck!” which frankly are the key ingredients for any successful project.

Why Naiveté?

In the beginning I thought it would take a few months to sell the project, and then someone told me it would most likely take six to 12 months, which both relieved me and frustrated me at the time. Ultimately it took more like 24-36 months before the project went from concept to funding

Honestly, I probably would have never tackled the project if I had known it would take two, almost three years before it was finally prioritized and funded. The reality is that you have to be naïve and overly optimistic about how long it will take otherwise you’d most likely give up before you start.

Why persistence?

Because while we all start out naively, success ultimately requires persistence, otherwise we’d give up before crossing the finish line, especially when the finish line seems to just keep moving further away. The challenge is to figure out the difference between persistence and stupidity, as success is never guaranteed.

Why creativity?

While persistence is critical, you need to keep coming up with different sales pitches and throwing them against the wall to see what sticks. And we came up with stories based on fear, greed, greatness, customer experience, you name it with all sorts of different charts that showing how we’d save money, save time, make money, grab new markets and so on and so forth as we drafted presentation after presentation. And each time our story became a little crisper, gained us new advocates and helped us slowly crawl up the prioritization list.

Just like any other types of sales, when you are asking for people to part with their money and resources, it’s rare that you create the perfect pitch the first time. Instead you need to view every pitch as an experiment, where you are making as many observations and potentially asking as many questions as you are answering, otherwise you are wasting time. So identify what went well and modify what didn’t – and keep selling until someone bites!

So what was the final ingredient required for funding?

Luck! Without luck, I don’t know that we ever would have gotten the required nor the desired funding, but part of luck is being ready at the right place and right time when the opportunity arises. And while most of us would love to credit our brilliance for success, and blame bad luck for our failures, the reality is that lady luck is equally present in both.

But without the naiveté to start, the persistence to keep going when it seems hopeless & the creativity to keep coming up with new pitches, you will rarely be in a position to enjoy lady luck’s sunshine.

So put on those rose-colored glasses, but with flexible titanium frames that will hold up to the abuse, and get started pitching!

News Organizations Enrage but Don’t Engage

The New York Times Article “For the Wealthiest, a Private Tax System That Saves Them Billions” represents both the promise and the failure of modern journalism.

The promise because the article was a classic piece of investigative journalism that shined the light on the way the ultrarich maneuver the political and legal system to evade taxes.

The failure, because the NY Times only enraged readers. Instead of empowering their readers by providing tools to help them take action and drive political change, they only offered an article, like offering a match without a lantern to people looking for light. The match ignites the fire, but the lantern keeps it burning much brighter and longer than the match alone.

Articles are an 18th century technology that are still incredibly powerful here in the 21st century but they:

  • Lack Personalization so that you can understand how the issue impacts you specifically – or where your specific representatives stand on an issue or their role in the problem, i.e. who are my representatives, do they have their hand in the cookie jar, what’s their official position and what’s their track record on the issue.
  • Are passive instead of being Interactive. While they get you enraged, they don’t help you get engaged and take action. Instead you have to search elsewhere for tools and resources to help you reach out to your representatives or mobilize others to make change.

While Infographics, data visualizations, videos and even virtual reality are great new story telling tools, they still don’t fundamentally transform news organizations from being content generators into solution providers – which is what we as a society need to increase our civic engagement and news organizations need to do in order to grow their value.

So if the Times and other news organizations truly want to make a difference, then they need to provide users the ability to:

  • Find their specific representatives
  • Identify how much they’ve received from lobbyists and individuals
  • Their votes on specific items
  • Their positions on the issue. The Times could have easily sent a survey to the representatives and Senators to get their feedback.
  • Give feedback to their elected officials via Democracy.io or similar tool
  • Create, sign or share petitions demanding change
  • Engage with organizations that are fighting for equity
  • Attend virtual or physical town halls with key players to learn more about the issue and potential ways to get more involved

 

I’m sure I’ve barely scratched the surface on what the NY Times could do. And yes, they all contain risks, but unlike real estate and employment classifieds, civic engagement is why we became journalists and the space news organizations need to own if they are to fulfill their 21st century potential.

I need a microwave now! So why doesn’t Best Buy let me filter products by what’s in their stores today?

Our Microwave died -so we turned to BestBuy.com & Target.com for help but instead of coming to the rescue, they just pissed us off with bad Websites that prevented us from buying from them.

Instead of Target and Best Buy leveraging their greatest assets – locations with easily accessible inventory, their Websites made it virtually impossible to find what’s actually available in your nearby locations.

Considering how frequently we use the microwave for reheating leftovers, ad defrosting dinner items, we needed a replacement ASAP – and we needed something that looked good and could fit into the cubby hole we’d built in the cabinet.

Given the urgency and the need for exact measurements this was a perfect opportunity to use the Web for some initial research and then purchase in store until we discovered yet another reason why the big box retailers are struggling.

Best Buy = Worst Experience: You can filter by brand and whether items are on sale, but you can’t filter by what’s actually in store. So in order to find which of the dozen or so microwaves out of the 126 listed is actually available locally, I need to click through to each individual microwave and search to see whether it’s available.

Best Buy

Target = Off Target: At least Target allows you to filter by in-store, but you have to drill into the individual item to find out if it’s at a nearby location. And of course while trying, I got an error 😦

Target MicrowavesOops! We're not yet at six sigma reliability yet :(

Considering the billions Best Buy and Target have invested in real estate and inventory, they could at least invest a few million to make it easy for shoppers to find what they need at their nearby location instead.