I'm going up the road to talk with the folks at Social Media Club Columbia on Oct. 8, and in preparation for the event the organizers posted short bios of the panelists, along with a series of possible questions. There's no way we'll have time to get around to each, but I thought these questions were so excellent that each was worthy of yet another Virtual Interview.
What’s the best way for media companies to move from a print first to a web first mentality?
The tricky part is that what you're really talking about here is swapping out engines on an airplane in flight, and I think we should acknowledge the difficulty of that maneuver, plus the fact that doing something like this is never going to be as efficient as starting from scratch with a dedicated staff and a blank tablet.
But when it comes to the print-first vs. web-first shift, it's actually not rocket surgery. You have to take some of your staff and give it the mission of doing incremental, breaking news on the Web. And then you have to get your key newsroom people, and I'm talking managing editors, city editors, sports editors, and you've got to make the success of the website part of their mission. If you do those two things, you're going to wind up producing news in a different workflow and it's going to work.
Most places want to treat this as a training issue and a systems issue, and don't get me wrong. Both are important. But it's really a trust and accountability issue. Unless your top leaders are actually accountable for the success of your Web efforts, they're going to be sabotaging or at least undermining them. It's just too easy for them to give the Web lip service, and then stick to doing the same old thing. And employees aren't stupid. They see that, and they just wait out most “web-first” initiatives.
There are plenty of people who can walk into your newsroom and set up the workflows and training sessions that can make a web-first system work (like, say, me for instance). But unless your top management is accountable for its success, and by that I mean that their salaries and bonuses are tied to it, it's not going to change. This is a cultural challenge masquerading as a technical problem.
How will mobile computing pay into the future of journalism?
The word here could be “pay” or it could be “play” and in either case it's an interesting question.
So let's assume two things: 1. The early adapters of mobile computing are both the high-end tech users and another demographic of users who will invest in smart phones but not desktop or even laptop computing. You're going to have lots of people who won't invest in computer technology who will invest in a snappy phone that is basically a handheld computer, and I think we have to understand that divide and what it means. I think one laboratory for that is Twitter, which is divided into the pre-Oprah group and the post-Oprah group, and they're both using the same service with basically zero overlap.
The second thing is, you don't use a handheld device the way you use a desktop. You relate to things differently, for various reasons.
So how does mobile computing "play" into the future of journalism? Well, I think the first thing you have to recognize is that the news you deliver on a smart phone is going to cross the line into annoyance very quickly if your method of determining what to deliver and at what level of intrusion isn't extremely sensitive. And the way to do that is that you have to have apps that learn from the users' actions.
We like to think you can ask people some questions and then use that to determine their preferences. But we communicate much more honestly by what we do than what we say. So if I were in the news business today I'd be working with an iPhone app developer to create an app that tracks a user's actions while interacting with news. And I would be creating formulas that match your expressed interests AND your unexpressed preferences to determine what priorities to give certain types of stories and headlines. Because if it's just editors picking stories for you, you're not going to use it. It's going to become an annoyance, not a tool.
How does mobile computing “pay” into journalism? I think the answer there is that I probably won't be able to sell you content, but I might be able to sell you an intelligent application that keeps you satisfied and informed about things that actually concern or excite you. I think we should be trying to create mobile devices that act as extensions of each user's interests and personality. And I think you could sell that both as an application and as a subscription-based service.
Should media companies focus on developing the semantic web on their sites?
Semantic Web in the capital letter, W3C, perfectly validating code sense? No. That becomes a question of abstract correctness rather than utility.
Semantic in the sense that the structure conveys meaning? In the sense that the structure adds, captures, enhances and expands meaning? Yes, yes, yes. I'm usually with the geeks on most subjects, but the discussion of semantic structure has degraded into a snarky pissing contest about using the tables tag, and it's just bullshit. The semantic web is not about web design. It's about building an information economy.
The big lesson that analog thinkers have to grasp before they pass Go is that a fact without a context is simply noise. Its value approaches zero. Facts that exist in “stories” have analog value to human readers in the moment that they read it, but the cost of extracting those archived facts and putting them into a structure that provides a machine-readable context (and preserves that value over time) will typically be greater than the value of the original facts.
So what news companies should be doing is creating workflows that capture facts within a structure that connects them to their context and stores them with those connections. You don't have to create new jobs and add work – you just have to provide workflows and tools that make digitizing information as much a part of the process as typing your byline. Once you've done that, all sorts of options open up for you. Until you've done that, you're just on the receiving end of a massive historical change.
You have to think ahead, and media companies hate that.
Will the singularity save journalism? :)
Ken McLeod says that The Singularity is “the Rapture for nerds,” and I agree. I think about The Singularity a lot, because in the abstract sense it's inevitable, but in the historical sense it's impossible, because humanity is chaotic and defies mathematical abstraction. In other words, we generate enough friction to keep The Singularity always over the next rise..
I kid around about how we'll wake up on Jan. 1, 2045, look around and we'll be surrounded by flying golden unicorns. But there's a serious side to this question, and it's really about expectations based on the pace of change. You don't have to go over an event horizon for the rate of change to become destabilizing, and I would argue that's what mass media is experiencing now.
When I arrived at The Post and Courier in April 1994, the editor who showed me around the newsroom proudly demonstrated the new 486 computers he'd just purchased. “These are top of the line,” he said. “We won't have to upgrade for another 10 years.”
That sounds absurd now, but you have to understand that from the perspective of a late-20th century executive, that was a very reasonable assumption about capital amortization. If you invested in a major equipment expense like a newsroom technology upgrade, you just assumed it would be good for 10 years. Industries that depend on computers have adjusted their expectations since then, but most leaders and managers are not comfortable with the idea that the pace of change keeps doubling and doubling and doubling.You can tell them that, but they just can't imagine it, and things that you can't imagine are invisible even if you're staring at them under Klieg lights.
So the singularity won't save journalism, but the acceleration of change should give us clues as to how we're going to have to manage information and make decisions. You could say that our inability to imagine that acceleration is part of what's killing mass media journalism, and the act of imagining adequate responses frees the act of committing journalism from the control of people who simply want to extract 20 percent profits from it, regardless of the effect on society.
What are your thoughts on Augmented Reality and data relationships in journalism?
William Gibson's most recent novel features a character who is an augmented reality artist, and he's going around creating these scenes that you'll see only if you're a user. In one instance he's created a holographic recreation of a horrific murder in a hotel lobby or something, but it's visible only to the people who are wearing the proper devices and know how to tune in. So you have the people who aren't tuned in walking through the scene in real life, but users with the right headgear are seeing the present reality and the recreated image, simultaneously. That stuck with me, because if you wanna talk about the ultimate mashup, there you go, and if you want an analogy for what it all means, there it is.
I think in many ways we're already experiencing separate realities, but that makes it graphic.
So the main thing is that because your mobile device is going to locate you within a two-dimensional plane, you're going to have all sorts of information pushed towards you. And the question, again, is how to create systems that manage your interests in a non-complex way.
If I'm walking through Charleston and every time I pass a store I get an unwanted sales pitch on my phone, I'm eventually going to turn that app off. But if my mobile device is essentially an intelligent agent operating on my behalf, and it's finding things that I want, in real time, and picking them out of my physical environment in interesting and entertaining ways, I'm going to be all about it.
The augmented reality that I think about most is restaurants. You can only tell so much by looking at them, which is why I'd want an augmented reality that told me more. And since I want reliable commercial information rather than just sales pitches, I think there's value in a system like that.
The issue with augmented reality, then, isn't the technology. You need a platform that communicates it, a system that structures and creates it, a business model that understands its value and how to communicate it, and user devices and software agents that accurately interpret and negotiate it. The issue is content and how to pay for it.
The problem is that we need a business model that rewards someone for adding value (i.e., meaningful content that people actually want). Until that happens, then every business that approaches augmented reality is going to treat it as just another way of delivering no-cost crap. It's going to be mass-media executives trying to figure out how to use Facebook all over again. Business people tend to look at networked media as a way to make free money off of somebody else's content, but there's not going to be a sustainable business here until we work out the connections and expectations and exchanges..
We're all going to live in a highly augmented world. But the reality is, our brains are tuned to only a certainly degree of awareness, and everything beyond that is not only surplus, it's actually unhealthy. The challenge for humans, and for media companies, is that from here on out, we're going to be managing attention very judiciously. The secret will be to create signal-to-noise ratios that are extremely high, and the only way to do that is to make everything as personal as DNA.
And I don't have to tell you what worries and challenges and nightmares come bundled with that statement. But it's where we have to go.
Content Managment Systems for media companies, cloud-based (Drupal) or client-based (CCI).
I don't know. Great question, but I haven't studied it yet.
Discuss how the general-interest product has become obsolete.
I tell people that the problem with the kind of mass-media news judgment that I learned over 20 years in the business is that it's just this giant averaging machine. It's creating news and information products that are based on the lowest common denominator within large groups , delivering content based on what's the least objectionable compromise versus what people care about.
And my advice has been, base your business on love. Create content for people to love, not for people to encounter in this zipless, bloodless, view-from-nowhere mass-media fantasy world that we created in the 20th century.
You have to leave the mass-media business to talk that kind of craziness, because these executives have, for the most part, spent the past 20 to 40 years learning that system, and it's all they know. You cannot underestimate how threatening these ideas are, in a very personal way, to many top editors and publishers.
You'll hear a lot in the coming years about post-scarcity economics. Well, the first model for that is the information economy, and while post-scarcity sounds great, it's an enormous shift for everyone involved, and it isn't all sunshine and dancing penguins. What it should teach us is, in a world in which there is more than enough of Commodity X, you simply have to stand out. Being average isn't a good strategy anymore.
People feel this way and that way about Seth Godin, but he plowed this ground early and he has plowed it very fine. The Television Industrial Complex is broken, and it's never coming back.
I say thank goodness, but the result is a very lean time for people like me.