How technology is changing the media

by Vincenzo Marino – translated by Roberta Aiello

What happens to First Look?

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First Look Media is the journalistic project launched by eBay CEO Pierre Omidyar about a year ago. With ambitious aims and a strong initial investment of $250 million, it was built mainly around Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, dedicated to the topic of freedom and surveillance and protagonists in the NSA scandal. The first idea included the launch of a website focused on these issues and the expansion of the group with the opening of various multi-thematic channels. After starting The Intercept, the intent of First Look was the launch of The Racket, the other website of the outlet, that would have focused on the relationship between politics and finance which well-known journalist Matt Taibbi and his team had been involved in. This week, First Look made the announcement to abandon the Racket project and the removal of the team that was working on it, after the departure of Taibbi caused by what is defined onThe Intercept as «a collision between the First Look executives, who by and large come from a highly structured Silicon Valley corporate environment, and the fiercely independent journalists who view corporate cultures and management-speak with disdain.»

Taibbi is not the first person to leave the project, which has had many problems meeting the high expectations that had been generated. According to a report by Chris Lehman titled «Maybe Silicon Valley Shouldn’t Manage Journalists,» both the editorial structure conceived by Omidyar and managers of the newborn group suffer from being excessively linked to the world of the hi-tech industry system, more organizational than operational to the point of giving greater priority to «strategy meetings» than to «actually producing things.» For Lehman, however, what happened is not a surprise. «The culture of Silicon Valley and the traditions of investigative reporting still make for an awkward fit. The tech industry’s obsessions with digital gadgetry and vacuous innovation-speak are notoriously resistant to basic journalistic values such as skeptical inquiry. One need only witness the geyser of hosannahs that attends a new iPhone release,» the writer admonished – not without some criticism by those who speak of a kind of shadenfreude at the troubles of First Look.

Mathew Ingram of GigaOM analyzes the post of Lehman and what he considers to be one of the main mistakes made by the leadership, which is thinking of a structure so large as to forget that the best way to create something new and make it work is to start from small projects that are then refined and improved over time, following the example of Vox, Vice, BuzzFeed. The sum of $250 million is so considerable that it needs targeted and gradual investments. Especially in a publishing market like today’s, in which there is the need to reinvent every day and it is better to have the perseverance ‘to go for attempts.’ It is «the number one rule of startups» that perhaps «First Look has forgotten,» Ingram continues.

What is the difference between a newspaper and a software?

The case of First Look Media reopens the issue of the relationship between journalism and the technology industry, launched last week by Emily Bell. In an article in the Guardian titled «What’s the right relationship between technology companies and journalism?» Bell tries to give a detailed answer to those who asked her if there really exist substantial differences between «journalism and software companies.» The most immediate response – Bell says – is that journalism should aim to have a social impact, regardless of profit margins. An impact that seems to ‘relocate’ itself elsewhere, where readers read and discuss the news. Social networks have gone from being the source of news for 11% of Americans in 2011 to 30% in 2014 (on Facebook alone). That is the place where there are discussions (a few days ago, Reuters made it one of the reasons it closed the comments below the posts of its website) and news comes to life, animated by queues of comments, checks and debates, on a technological platform and not a journalistic one in the strict sense.

«Why have media companies completely failed to create any successful social platforms in the past 20 years?,» Bell asks (on the ‘addiction to Facebook’ we have discussed here,) imagining a tool capable of managing readings and preferences of readers, while keeping the discussion in an editorial ‘fence’ and binding them to the outlet. Trying to do it now, however, «it is too late, at least for the moment,» the writer continues.

This week, BuzzFeed has published a post entitled «How technology is changing media,» which analyzes the work done by the website, to stand in the social and mobile sectors, supporting the inevitable trend of the digital, snackable, young, mobile and video use of the news (also attested by the Innovation Report of the New York Times.) The article shows how BuzzFeed gives priority to the sharing of content rather than the ranking on search engines (as mentioned by Ben Smith a few weeks ago.) «We don’t sit around and talk about our homepage, we sit around and talk about Facebook and we talk about Twitter and we talk about shares,» Will Hayward, BuzzFeed’s vice president, Europe, told The data (charts can be consulted here) show the passing of clicks coming from social networks of those that always dominate from the research engine, with a strong influence of mobile, which becomes the primary platform for social consultation for 60% of Americans (60% is also the portion of visits conquered by BuzzFeed that come from social media used from mobiles.) It is not a surprise that the website of Peretti and Smith is intending to ride the wave.

The clash between journalism and technology

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How to explain the gap between technology and journalism, despite the billions put on the table and the more or less successful experiments? «The story of the last 20 years has been the story of the collision of journalism and tech,» explains Dave Winer of ScriptingNews, commenting on Emily Bell’s article. «Perhaps because they understand as little about journalism as journalism understands about tech.» Often journalists hate Facebook, blabbering algorithms, the supremacy of Zuckerberg, forgetting that often the true ‘human algorithm’ adopted to decide whether or not a piece of news is newsworthy is still quite opaque, at least for those who remain out of its production cycle.

How to rebuild journalism in the midst of this battlefield? According to Winer, it is necessary to accept the current hegemony of social media as the main distribution channel – the million active users who use them every day must be considered – but at the same time it would be essential to start thinking about one’s own digital distribution system which stands alongside Facebook and Twitter. There are the means, forces, capabilities and human resources to do it, Winer concludes: «There is room for lots of different approaches. We’re at the beginning of something new.»

«About fifteen years into the digital wave, tectonic plates seems to drift more apart that ever,» says Frederic Filloux on his Monday Note referring to the media world. «On one side, most media brands – the surviving ones – are still struggling with an endless transition. On the other, digital native companies» are already immersed in a new world. It is a world still unknown to all, in which, however, the new digital protagonists seem to benefit more from the cultural point of view than the older protagonists. This happens because the new ones are structurally more predisposed to survive for their inherent agility, the boldness towards risk, a leaner, scalable – and probably more meritocratic – hierarchical structure. «I hoped the old world would be able to morph swiftly and efficiently enough to catch the wave, deal with new kinds of readers, with a wider set of technologies,» explains Filloux, who dreams of a harmonious fusion between old values and new ideas. “And I still want to believe this.”