Seamless journalism can make it without publishers (maybe) #ONA15

7 October 2015 italian version

by Andrea Iannuzzi – translated by Roberta Aiello

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Tweet: [tweetable]The web is dead, brands are dead and we don’t feel so well either[/tweetable]

Notes from the 2015 Online News Association conference in Los Angeles. While business models are desperately searched for, beyond the usual advertising, to support the media industry, the feeling is that publishing and journalism may eventually have separate fates, taking different routes. The gravitational system is collapsing, the news planets have stopped spinning around the outlets stars. It is no longer only a crisis of the classical model (container + content) since it involves the idea of the outlet, the brand and its publishing function. The needs of individuals will determine the demand for news, in an inverted relationship with sources, depending on experience, empathy and emotions.

From ad blocking to peer-to-peer publishing, from personalized algorithms of stories to tailored membership, from the project to include reliability and credibility of content in the Google “recipe”, these are all signs that show how the power of news has moved to the user, the reader, the social individual, who can already vote now for Uber drivers or AirBnB rooms and tomorrow could vote for news reports and their authors. The reader will become the new “owner” of journalism and journalists, as it was supposed to be all along.

1. Introduction (the Uber X lesson)

Twenty-six dollars and 40 cents – tip and gum offered by Muhammad, the driver, included – for an 18-mile ride from Santa Monica to downtown Los Angeles. It is half the price of a regular taxi, with twice the kindness. It was not worse for Rachel, Elena, Edwin. Their survival depends on the kindness, the mechanism of immediate and obligatory feedback from customers (you cannot use the service again if you do not express a vote of your level of satisfaction for the previous ride: from one to five stars, then an average is calculated and the number appears next to the face of the driver, available for the following customers).

Uber X – public transport service by private citizens’ cars – is the symbol of the benefits that the digital evolution of the species has made in the lives of us analog bipeds.. If we are ready to some grant some concessions (credit card registration for automatic payment, the tracking of our journeys), if it is not a problem to be greeted by a stranger who smiles at us, calls us by name – so as to know if we have requested the service – and to be asked if the air conditioning is ok, it means that the digital revolution has won. We are no longer willing to accept services below this standard, we are not nostalgic for grumpiness, we are not anchored to the memories of that world. It is sufficient for us to consult Google for the “recherche.” Even Muhammad, Rachel, Elena are analogue evolved human beings. For them, digital is the difference between unemployment and employment, with many thanks to the strikes by taxi drivers.

Of course, technology is not the zero-cost bright future that some want us to believe. At the risk of getting trapped in the “glass cage” of an electronic display and see our intellectual and experiential abilities gradually decrease because of the news algorithm, it is worth reading the “The Glass Cage,” an essay by Nicholas Carr. Certainly, the process of robotics is becoming increasingly invasive, particularly in communications and the media. It is not a matter of being techno-utopian or catastrophic. There is a reality to be analyzed, a scenario to be outlined, being aware that the generation born before 1985 will be the last to have a memory of how the world was before the Internet. Without making an analysis of what is lost and what is gained, history gives us the role of a link between the analog and the digital universe. This is the topic of the book by Michael Harris, “The End of Absence.” It is up to us, against our will, to complete this transition and there is not much time left.

In the world of Uber X there is no room – no need or market – for the media, as we have known it up to now. This is a sentence that has been told and written a thousand times, but when you can make simple operations with a smartphone that will solve the problems of life by meeting the needs of the moment (a car to drive, a bed to sleep in, a takeaway to eat, a chat to be in touch with the ones you love), when these operations can be controlled by you during the entire experience (the driver is 3 minutes away, you know in advance the type of the car and the number plate, he changes direction and you can see him approaching on the map, he calls you to know where you are), then you realize how just anachronistic the proposal of a packaged journalistic product is, despite its flexibility and customer-design. “Being the New York Times” is no longer enough. Someone has already spoken of “the death of news brand.”

2. News publishing vs journalism?

The recent ONA conference (Online News Association) in Los Angeles checked the pulse of the best of worldwide journalism, both in terms of content and technology. It sanctioned, without saying it explicitly, what seems to be a turning point: news publishing and journalism will go their separate ways. Do not try to find this revelation in specific conference sessions, journalism without the business of traditional publishers (but with the community of social individuals to act as new publishers) has not yet been theorized. But I have a feeling that it is a plausible, not so remote, scenario for the future.

Maybe journalism will gain from this separation, because it will be able to ignore the obligation to sell a product, going back to its own social and civic role in a direct relationship with people and communities to whom it is addressed and from which it will not only be supported but also requested. News publishing – at least in the form we know today – is an industry that seems to have exhausted its life cycle, as others before. All the more or less successful attempts to keep it profitable clash with often merciless numbers, in terms of revenues and sustainability, sometimes bringing hope but insufficient to have confidence in a rediscovered business model.

Let’s be honest, no one stands still to watch walls that are collapsing. Where paywall and traditional advertising have failed – already in crisis, aggravated by ad blockers – new forms of involvement, revenue strategies, product and business models are being experimented with. Technology trends are still the lighthouse on the horizon of an industry that will probably continue to finance (loss-making) journalism if it can shift the focus of the business to technology. Nevertheless, it needs to stop thinking in terms of product and start thinking in terms of service. If there is still room for “making money” it lies in platform formation. The combination of technological trends and new forms of monetization of reader experience is the immediate future. It is right, as well as healthy, to realize what is happening and try to react, before surrendering.

3. The 4 E formula: Engagement = Experience, Empathy, Emotions

Damon Kiesow (Head of Mobile Initiatives of McClatchy Company) has brought up the Introduction to Metaphysics by Heidegger and the example of the hammer used by a carpenter as an extension of the hand, without thinking about it, making the object “transparent.” Nowadays, technology makes tools more and more “transparent” and challenges those who produce and distribute news content to deal with the need of the user to have a smoother or indeed “seamless” experience. There is nothing worse than pushing towards cognitive overload, to perform unnatural actions to achieve the goal. User experience (called UX) needs to be first.

According to Kiesow, there are three parameters to keep in mind: the number of steps taken by the user to achieve the goal, their length and difficulties, not in a theoretical sense, or from the point of view of those who create and distribute the content, but as perceptions of the user. In a world that – for some regions and some age groups – is no longer “mobile first” but “mobile only” (not even knowing the experience of consuming content via desktop), it is important to focus on the experience, putting the problems before the solutions, people before the product, exercising a “servant leadership” function. 

UX = User + Experience #ONA15 from Damon Kiesow

If the Experience is good, it can create empathy between us and our “reader.” After all, what is the membership model (discussed below) if not the attempt to codify the empathy between us and our community? The Engagement, which is a close relative of empathy (and very close to experience), is a term that in the world of digital news covers a wide range of behaviors, and that is summed up in mutual understanding, the relationship and the interaction between various parties involved in the news process. To create engagement, we need to arouse emotions. Anyone with a little familiarity with social media knows it. One of the words heard most often in Los Angeles was “emotions,” maybe it was an involuntary tribute from Hollywood to the blockbuster Inside Out.

Mary Walter-Brown, publisher of the Voice of San Diego, spoke about building “emotions around the brand.” “Readers emotions” says Maria Ressa – founder and CEO of Rappler – “are important because they affect what we write and how we write.”

Emotions are, however, carefully managed by those who work in the media, especially in the context of what Amy Webb – the “futurist” who every year enchants the ONA audience with her Tech Trends (read below) – called “Internet Mob Justice.” From the case of Cecil the Lion to the Baltimore Riots, the network and social media enable situations of summary and popular justice. The task of the media is to avoid pouring oil on those fires in the name of journalistic rights and duties.

4. Metrics quality, quality metrics

Can experience, empathy, emotions, engagement be measured? Yes. They should be measured and in order to do that non-traditional metrics, based on quantitative parameters, are needed. We should be able to analyze the quality of the interactions. Dana Chinn (Director, USC Media Impact Project, USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center) analyzes the “audience-first” approach to data and summarizes it with the three number keys of the metrics: 1-2-15. “One” means that there is a person behind every click (and we should be of interest to those people, whether there are a few or many).

“Two” is the fateful second click, the dreaded bounce rate: the user who chooses to deepen our content is worth much more, in terms of quality, than the first click that bounces and goes away. “Fifteen” are the minutes that each of us should dedicate, every day, to the social care of the story we tell (by responding to comments on Facebook, checking emails related to the story, trying to revive it in a different way, interacting with potentially concerned people). Below, you can see the entire speech of Dana Chinn.

Michael Keller and Brian Abelson, two researchers of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism, have designed and built “Newslynx,” an (open source) tool which can be used by newsrooms to measure the impact of content, regardless of the canonical traffic data. The Newslynx recipe mixes traditional metrics with social ones (likes, retweets, shares) trying to add quality parameters (for example the type of account that has linked content, or related events). The prototype is developing and is not an automated tool. One needs to go beyond pageviews and understand more about the effectiveness of our work within our community. Read more here: Bit.ly/ona15-impact-tips (PDF) and Newslynx.org.

Google also seems to want to bet on quality. Richard Gingras relaunched the so-called “Trust Project,” citing the Italian daily La Stampa and in particular its editor Mario Calabresi as an active and proactive partner. The challenge is to be able to enter the algorithm parameters that allow the user to determine and choose the most reliable content.

5. How to (try to) survive: membership and surroundings

Are there new ways ahead for the media business? Here are some ideas which emerged from the conference in Los Angeles.

Nowadays, membership is the magic word. Easy to say, harder to achieve. An example is the Voice of San Diego, a non-profit investigative journalism website which has set up a scientific mechanism of membership. The faithful reader, who decides to become a member of the program, is taken to the center of an “experience” that goes from regular meetings with the newsroom to monthly emails where the CEO informs him or her on the current financial situation and projects, from the previews on scoops to the chance to become a campaign website testimonial. The secret lies in the management platform, the so-called CRM (Customer Relationship Management), in this particular case assigned to SalesForce. One of the ways to get membership is the newsletter, another word back in vogue, according to an inverted pyramid that starts from one million visitors, skims 15,000 newsletter subscribers and reaches 2,000 subscribers of membership: a solid and lasting form of revenue, according to Mary Walter Brown.

The Texas Tribune has decided, successfully, to stake everything on live events. This year, once again, the website won awards at the Online Journalism Awards, along with emerging realities such as reported.ly (breaking news, for coverage of Charlie Hebdo on Twitter) and historic newspapers committed to innovation such as The Washington Post (general excellence), not to mention the BBC for the use of Whatsapp for the Ebola crisis or The Denver Post that focused on the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. In traditional advertising, the experience of Quartz is interesting; it succeeded in achieving good results by searching for quality even in advertisements.

Outside consolidated schemes there is the example of ProPublicacharacterized by data journalism also as a possible source of revenue. Scott Klein has explained the system: collected, refined and organized datasets by ProPublica (for example, that on the costs of doctors in all US states) are made available to “customers” in different forms and at different prices, depending on who the interlocutor is. Journalists and universities pay less than those who want to use that data for marketing purposes.

Finally, Beacon is a crowdfunding platform that finances specific news projects.

6. The death of mobile web and “peer-to-peer publishing”: uncertainties and opportunities

Let’s go back to the opening issue. The problem is the well known gravitational crisis of the journalistic-publishing system. The news planets (in a broader sense) have stopped spinning around the outlets stars. Brands do not have the power of attraction anymore and everything collapses, everything floats in a new undefined space.

For example, Richard Gingras, head of media relations of Google, pressed by Emily Bell during the opening keynote said that in the mobile era web is dead. Paraphrasing Woody Allen, it can be said that if brands are dead and the web is dead, we also don’t feel well either. In this new chaos, in which the user looks at the center of a universe governed by relativity – nowadays plastically represented by the Facebook newsfeed (but tomorrow who knows?) – is there still room for journalism?

The answer is obviously yes, otherwise we would fall into the paradox of a society based on constant news that dries up the sources of this information. If there is no evidence that journalism should still remain connected to publishing, there is evidence of the contrary. Short-term strategies of publishers, pressed by the need to reverse the course, are possibly burying journalism, forcing it inside cages that do not belong to it and putting plurality, neutrality (in the sense of access to information) and the relationship with citizens at risk.

I do not know if the uber of journalism will be created and how it should be structured. One of the “tech trends” presented by Amy Webb, under the definition of “Peer-to-peer publishing”, which harnesses the power of the so-called WebRTC (nerd stuff) was interesting. Do you know Torrent? The file sharing that bypasses the server via browser? The one-to-one exchange will soon become the scenario of the news sector as well. You can read more on Project Maelstrom. Or you can imagine the same story packaged in dozens of different ways, depending on the reading and understanding characteristics of the individual user. Science fiction? No, it is called “versioning” and based on algorithms customized from cognitive computing is able to predict the behavior and needs of each one of us, based on our online lives. Have you ever heard of Crystal? It is an app that collects, classifies and provides the user with thousands of “personal communication profiles,” with name and surname. Everyone has his own writing and linguistic interaction style. Crystal scans our online activities and tells those who will communicate with us – maybe via email – if we are verbose or synthetic, whether we like emoticons or question marks.

It is certain that we are moving towards a world in which the direct relationship between individuals – or community of individuals – triumphs over the role of the service provider, with a reversal of roles. It will no longer be the service provider (of “news”) to seek the user by trying to give him the best. It will be the user who expresses his needs, addressing those sources – or that system of sources – that suit his needs best and that will undergo his immediate evaluation. After all, if we vote Uber drivers with stars (or Yelp restaurants or AirBnb apartments), why shouldn’t we also express our likes also on a news report and its author?

If we want, in a frantic succession of stages to which the digital development has accustomed us, we probably will participate in the end of the “push” era, that of notifications and packaged products distributed to a user waiting patiently with his needs. The citizen, the social individual, is sick and tired of notifications, he does not want to be unnecessarily disturbed. A more mature and aware relationship with digital technology has been created, taking what is needed, when it is needed, with the only competitive parameter represented by the ease of use, the immediate availability, the “seamless” experience. This means that any potential cognitive obstacle becomes a barrier that separates – sometimes irreparably – the user from the service provider.

After the drunkenness of the era of news overload for free, individuals and communities will return to expressing their need to navigate the new world through quality news. Whoever is ready, whoever puts the user experience at the center of the development trajectory – and thus the capacity of being found without waste of cognitive energy – will have a better chance. The goal is not to make money from this service. Forget the business, at least for now. As journalists, we need to keep alive the need for news that characterizes democratic societies, transforming and adapting it to new requirements.

One more thing

If you have read this far, I ask you for two more minutes of attention. At the ONA conference there was a bit of glory for the team that I have the honor to lead. The co-management project of the Cronaca Italiana Instagram account with the Italian Instagramers Association was selected among those deserving a public presentation in the “Lightning Talks” and “Unconference” sessions. We illustrated the positive experience started last summerwhich is still ongoing, and gave the passwords of our Instagram account to users, asking them to tell – through us – the stories of their local area by images. This is how we have tried to apply to ourselves the three “E” rule (below, there are the slides of the presentation).

La Cronaca italiana’s Instagram Project from Andrea Iannuzzi
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