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Episode 7 ● Part 1

Amy Webb

Better distribution systems are key for the news industry

Who knows you best? You might be tempted to answer your parents, siblings, or spouse, but there’s a good chance your phone knows just as much, if not more. The question is: How can the news industry leverage that knowledge to provide relevant, customized content?

Futurist Amy Webb, CEO and Founder of Future Today Institute, believes that distribution is one of the most pressing challenges facing the news industry. Gone are the days when newspapers owned their own printing presses, and long gone are the days when print was the only viable distribution method. Today’s publishers rely on partnerships to help broadcast content, but as Webb points out, those partners don’t always prioritize the needs of the news organization in question.

The obvious and necessary solution, as Webb sees it, is for the news industry to collectively commit to what she calls “significant capital investments in technology, people and tools so that news organizations control an economically compelling distribution system.” It might sound like a major step for an industry that has struggled to adapt to change and keep pace with the times, but Webb believes it’s just a matter of time.

About Amy
Futurist. Author. Lecturer. CEO.

Amy Webb is the CEO and founder of the Future Today Institute, a future forecasting and strategy firm that researches where new technologies will take specific industries and companies. She is the author of The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream, as well as How to Make J-School Matter (Again), for which she was awarded a national Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists. She also published a best-selling memoir, Data, a Love Story: How I Cracked the Online Dating Code to Meet My Match. In addition to working as a lecturer for Columbia University, Webb is an adjunct professor for NYU’s Stern School of Business.

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The Interview

This interview with Amy Webb has been edited for length and clarity.

What does a futurist do?

The term “futurist” has become pretty popular. I think that’s because people are very excited about technology, and of course they are. We are surrounded by magical inventions that it would have been impossible to imagine just three decades ago.

Futurists are multidisciplinary researchers––we draw from data science, computer science, economics, history, art and design, science––and we each have a methodology to help us identify the signals in the noise. Professional futurists––people who’s profession is researching the future using data and a framework––don’t have crystal balls. We also don’t make predictions. Instead, we try to identify and understand the probable, plausible and possible scenarios for a given technology, and we help determine the best possible outcomes for each so that action can be taken in the present.

I think the people who are professional futurists tend to have different areas of focus. Because I came out of journalism, my primary interest for a long time was the future of news. I do a lot more than that now, but it certainly still an interest that’s close to my heart.

Distribution, customization and personalization

Some of the biggest and most pressing technology challenges for news have to do with distribution. It’s not like Apple is calling up the Washington Post to say, “Hey, we’re going to have this new phone. It’s going to be a little smaller. What do you all think of that?” That’s not happening. More and more, people are sharing content through social networks and through different kinds of networks that are just starting to spring up. News organizations are helping that effort along, but they don’t have channels for distribution that can be monetized in a reasonable way. That’s a problem going forward. There are lots of possible solutions.

If you think about the devices that we have, the algorithms that exist, and what we know about artificial intelligence, we know that there will soon be a greater emphasis on customization and personalization. The phone that you own, in many ways, knows you better than your parents, your siblings, your partner, or your spouse. That device knows you, and it may know you better than you know yourself. That device is right for personalized news.

In an ideal world, five years from now, a news organization would know enough about me to deliver content that is important, newsworthy, and relevant to me. [Imagine that] for these five minutes, I’m waiting to pick my kid up at school. I’ve got five minutes to burn. The news organization knows this about me because of the device that’s in my possession at this moment. So I would receive a version of this story that’s going to make sense for me right now, whereas tomorrow morning at the gym, I’m going to be on a treadmill, so here’s a 30-minute version of something that is relevant, not just for my interest, but for my activity at that time.

This may seem strange, but we’re already seeing early research that shows that it’s possible to generate language that is linguistically most meaningful to me; therefore, I pay more attention to it. Am I going to respond to a paragraph that’s written in a particular tone and voice and style, or does it make more sense, in my case, for me to have a different version, linguistically, of that story? If a news organization not only delivered the right content at the right time in the right format for the individual reader, but now in a linguistic style that makes sense to that person, [that organization has] a real meaningful relationship with their reader. Tech companies are working on that, but news is not.

The problem is that news organizations are creating content, but they have to rely on partners for that content to be seen by a wide enough audience that it makes economic sense. The challenge is that, historically, those partnerships have not entirely favored the news orgs. The real question to be answered at this point is how much longer do we go relying on these outside groups for distribution? At what point do we reinvest, do we make significant capital investments in technology and people and tools so that news orgs themselves control an equally compelling distribution system as a social network or as one of these other outlets?

What will journalism look like in the future?

What I do for a living is to answer ‘What is the future of X’ for various industries, that includes government agencies, big corporations and the like. For journalism, the process is no different: my team and I gather information, look for hidden patterns, interrogate what we know about emerging trends and calculate the trajectory and timing for those trends. Then we create different scenarios ––probable, plausible, probable––using an emotive framework: optimistic, pragmatic, pessimistic and catastrophic views. I’ve done this many times for the future of journalism.

[The pragmatic view] assumes that things are going to continue along, status quo. There won’t be significant changes that impact the economy or any industries, but we also won’t see problems.

Pessimistic would be: funding is starting to dry up and we just haven’t come up with enough relevant solutions. Journalism will continue and the technology that we’re using will continue along, but not like we’re used to, which means less coverage, which means less, less, less.

The catastrophic view would be: it’s 20 years into the future and we didn’t do the kind of planning that I’ve been talking about. Essentially, news organizations have completely ceded control to outside interests for whom quality reporting is not a number one priority. Now news—vetted, authentic news that people care enough about to change their behavior—is a teeny, tiny sliver of this bigger pie, and has less and less power. That’s my big concern.

Counter to that is the optimistic view. There’s enough funding, there’s enough excitement and there are enough people and research invested in the right areas of tech, and the whole industry thrives. In the optimistic framing, news industry executives agree to pool their resources to define the future of news distribution, in a way that doesn’t prohibit competition. In this way, news organizations can still complete against each other in a meaningful way––but they won’t be entirely beholden to third party content distributors.

I think it’s possible. I wouldn’t keep talking about it if I didn’t think it was possible and if I didn’t think it was something that would have a significant impact and really propel the industry in a direction that gave it more power in the long run.

What’s next: Digitally supercharged reporting

More and more, there are ways to parse structured and even unstructured data. For example, data can be turned into a narrative––into a story that sounds like it was written by a human, when in fact, it was automatically generated by an algorithm. The same principles can be applied to automatically-generated video as well. One big trend in news is computer-generated content.

Smart virtual personal assistants have been around for a few years, but we’re just now starting to see commercial viability for some of them and an explosion of these things hitting the market. Essentially, these are tools that act as an intermediary between you and another person or a whole group of people. When it comes to journalists, some of these tools are good at listening.

I saw a demo of a smart virtual assistant product maybe three years ago. It was the delightful. You hit a button, and it listens to [your conversation]. Then, automatically, it would pull up all of the contextual information for the conversation that we’re having, in real time. If I was a reporter,I would have made it one of my primary reporting tools.

We’ve all been in a situation when we hear an acronym but don’t know what it stands for. Imagine having an app that would automagically define all of those acronyms, and would also show you photos and one-sentence bios of any person mentioned, pull up a map of any geographic region mentioned, and would translate foreign words used. If you ever watched Veep, it was like having Gary whispering into your ear everything you needed to know. It would have supercharged reporting and dramatically augmented the abilities of journalists—and of course, like many wildly useful apps, that one was quickly taken off the market and folded into something else.

In the same general category, we are about to see simultaneous language translation tools hit the market. Skype has a tool in beta. I’ve been playing around with something that Google has. The ability to have a conversation with somebody, and in real time understand what they’re saying even if you don’t speak the same language is just another incredible tool for a journalist.

Basically, we’re at a moment in time where, from here forward, we will always talk to machines, which is terrifying and amazing, if you think about it. There is no turning back unless somehow we lose all electrical power. From here on out, you can be expected to talk to your devices for the rest of your life. That presents some interesting opportunities.

What’s next: Distributed internet

For journalists who live around the world, who are in areas that might be more dangerous, where you might be under the thumb of a government who doesn’t want you to do any reporting on it. Another trend that we’re following is—and this is going to sound a little strange—a torrent system, but for the internet. If anyone has tried to download a pirated copy of a movie or a TV show—we’d of course never do that, right?—this is the same kind of system.

The group behind BitTorrent also started something called Project Maelstrom, which is predicated on the idea of a distributed internet. The more people that join, they connect to each other, but not through a centralized system. The cool thing about it is that a website would never be subject to a malicious attack. It would be really, really hard for a government to shut down a website because that website is distributed among the people who are using that system. I don’t know that that’s going to achieve commercial viability any time soon, but I do think that it really is a good sign for folks who are working in areas where, like I said, there may be impediments to publishing the important content that journalists publish.

What’s next: Robo-journalism

I’ve been thinking a lot about robots and autonomous devices. Drones and autonomous devices, which could be controlled offsite, offer great promise for news. Now this is also a very controversial area, at least in the United States. My good friend Matt Waite is a pioneer in this space. For years, he’s been lobbying on behalf of journalists, to make it easier for newsrooms to use drones. Historically, local laws have prohibited journalists from using drones, even for news gathering.

There are real reasons for a journalist to use a drone, and it doesn’t just have to do with taking pictures of people. Often we’re trying to figure out how many people are in an area. Where are people moving, especially if it’s a natural disaster or a riot, or sometimes a giant concert? In fact, in journalism school, that’s one of the things that you’re taught how to do is to estimate the crowd. There’s a whole formula and system. If you can send a drone up and just get an aerial shot, a computer can do that in a fraction of the amount of time than it would take a person to do, and it’s probably going to be more accurate.

Drone-assisted reporting and telepresence bot-assisted reporting is another thing to be looking at. There’s a company called Suitable Technology, which creates a product called the Beam. It’s a cool device that you can control remotely. Basically, it allows you to teleport yourself into a meeting or into a different place by controlling a keyboard. You can have conversations with other people.

Telepresence bots can be useful at something like a political convention. Just look at the RNC and DNC coverage—imagine a Beam being deployed by your local news organization, to follow around your local delegation. A bot would certainly grab everyone’s attention. Who wouldn’t want to talk to an autonomous robot? In a sense, it’s a neat gimmick—but it could also be used as a powerful reporting tool.

There are other cases where if you’re in a war zone, if you’re in a really dangerous area, you’re probably not going to send a Beam out, but there are autonomous devices that can be equipped with a camera. It’s never as good as you being there, but it’s certainly a lot safer. Many of these devices which are being used for other purposes can certainly be adopted by journalists.

What’s next: Algorithmic storytelling

Automation offers the most excitement and promise for news organizations. Machine learning can be used to extract information from text-only stories and photos, and automation algorithms can then package together a video story, complete with great transitions and even music. It could be that the most common story template in the near-future isn’t a 600-word story with a lead and nut graph, but rather a 60-second video explainer.

We can also use AI to hyper-personalize content for each individual news consumer. Imagine seeing that 60-second video explainer, and it opens with “Hey Jane… remember how you took a trip to Miami last year? Well, about two miles away from where you stayed, there was a night club shooting…” The news consumer has so much more context with an intro like that. She’s invested in the story, because it’s more visceral with her personal details and context. Computer-augmented news packaging will allow us to do this—and more.

Publishers need to invest in tech

A billion years ago—not quite a billion, but many years ago—news organizations were totally vertically integrated. They owned their printing presses, they understood how the printing presses worked, and they controlled the routes, and the papers were delivered in their trucks along their routes. In that system, there was economic viability because news organizations had a monopoly on distribution.

The internet has democratized how information moves around. I’m not advocating that news organizations should somehow own a piece of the internet, but they should certainly invest more in the people who build the tools to create the news, to get the news out, to engage people with the news.

Five years ago, there wasn’t a tremendous amount of meaningful investment happening. That’s stating to change, but the transition to digital first teams must happen faster.

I know that’s one of the hallmarks of what the Texas Tribune has been doing. Vox, I would say, is a good company to look at. They’re creating technology from scratch in order to push out the news in ways that are more meaningful for people. It’s a challenge to do that. It requires talent and it requires blowing up org charts and, essentially, inventing new titles or throwing out the old titles. It means melding together people who are in the editorial and product sides of things.

In so doing, you wind up with technology that makes sense. It’s like the difference between buying a suit off the rack and having a suit that’s custom-made for your body and your body’s weird curves and how you walk and all of those other things. It is always better to have something custom built.

Is [the news industry] doomed? Again, I would say no. There is hope, because there are lots of smart, innovative people working within journalism who are creating positive, durable change.

I’m well aware of the real-life management problems that come with trying to create entirely new structures and workflows. New technology can certainly be developed and deployed to re-engage news consumers, but there is a difference between developing some cool new technology and organizing your staff and management around optimizing those tools. Change must happen, and for legacy newsrooms, it won’t be easy.

The future news organization

There’s another piece of this, which is the culture and the structure of a news organization.

Newer news organizations don’t mirror the exact same structure as existing organizations. For the most part, these are tech-first, technology-forward companies, which tells me that if your focus is technology first—which is not to say that content and quality journalism is also not important—then it would follow that the structure is going to look quite different.

I don’t know what it would be like to try and transition an entire broadcast organization or a magazine conglomerate to a leaner, tech-forward structure like mirrors Vox Media’s. Short of a complete reorganization, newsroom managers can commit to regular meetings and seminars on emerging tech trends, and they can give staff the flexibility to experiment. I think that that’s probably going to be a rough transition. But better to acknowledge that something significant needs to happen now than 10 years from now or 15 years from now when there are more challenges.

Opportunities for journalists

There is a real opportunity for anyone who wants to participate in the knowledge economy. People who have the ability and capacity to work with information, who can write and tell stories, who can compile and analyze data––they will be desired candidates in the job market, whether that’s in news or in another field.

Journalism is a good job, is a good degree. It’s a good skill set for a knowledge economy, if you think about what a journalist is good at doing. I would argue that if you had a background in journalism and if you have a journalism degree, you can go off and do journalism, but you can also do things that aren’t called journalism, that are within that realm. That could be creating a virtual reality story experience. That could be working for the government in one of the various divisions, the digital services division now that is intent on helping it get its information out in a more meaningful way for the people who live in this country.

For as much as people bemoan the industry, I’d argue that there is a great appetite now for news, and there’s an easier way to get it than ever before in our history. The skills required to create quality journalism are integral to our democracy, and they’re transferrable across more jobs and industries than I could possibly list for you here.

I don’t share the same view that journalism is over, and that print is dead. The industry has some work to do, of course. But all of the emerging technology offers incredible promise. It’s up to news executives to create the future of news, and I believe our future is bright. My challenge to you is to envision your preferred future, and to go after it right now. Don’t wait.

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