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CHAPTER I - Journalism as Innovator

The Internet has eliminated barriers to competition and created a fertile field for media start-ups.

“You never had an opportunity where the Aspen Gazette could compete with The New York Times. The New York Times could get its newspaper in Aspen, but Aspen could never get its paper in the New York bodega,” said Bryn Mooser, a former Peace Corps volunteer and Vice President at AOL, who started a media company called Ryot. “[Now] everyone has the ability to compete with the big boys. Maybe even have an advantage without the big office building. There was a chance for a little guy to move quickly,” said Mooser. “These systems are changing really rapidly and quickly. If we can use them and exploit them there are great opportunities within that to tell stories.”

The Internet and other digital technologies have also forced the news industry to adapt and change, sometimes extremely successfully, sometimes not. Journalists are embracing innovation and experimenting with emerging new technologies from virtual reality to artificial intelligence.

Immersive Technologies. For example, a new video technology, 360-degree video, allows the viewer to pan the full field of vision around the camera — in front, to the side and behind. Ryot used this technology to produce a 360 video of the balloon drop during the Democratic National Convention.

Ryot has also moved aggressively into virtual reality. Virtual reality creates an experience that combines three-dimensional video, sound and 360-degree cameras to allow the viewer to move around within the video when wearing a headset. The company produced a virtual reality experience of the Nepal earthquake, for instance, where the viewer could walk around the ruins of Kathmandu.

Established media companies are also investing resources in these new technologies. The New York Times distributed Google Cardboard virtual reality (VR) headsets with its home-delivered print edition to publicize the creation of its first VR project on the global refugee crisis. The Guardian US created a VR experience called 6x9 where viewers could experience life inside a solitary confinement cell at a prison.

“We had been covering youth solitary confinement on Rikers (Island prison) in traditional ways,” said Joaquin Alvarado, Chief Executive Officer of Reveal/Center for Investigative Reporting. “But there was nothing like the emotional power of experiencing life inside a solitary cell.”

These tools also provide an opportunity to create greater engagement and trust with the audience. Consumer Reports, for example, partnered with virtual-reality company Oculus to create a VR experience. “For us it was about transparency,” said Marta L. Tellado, President and CEO of Consumer Reports. “Consumers want to see behind the curtain. Oculus allowed us to bring them into the lab and onto the test track so that they can see firsthand what goes into the work we do.”

The downside is that producing virtual reality video is still expensive. Stitching together film to create a seamless virtual environment is a resource-intensive process.

When evaluating whether these new immersive technologies are worth doing, The Washington Post asks, what does it do for the story? “There’s been a lot of attention to VR and 360, the latest cool thing. We can’t do the latest cool thing just because it’s cool,” said Marty Baron, editor. “What does it do for the story?”

To help news organizations reduce the costs and risk of these projects, the Knight Foundation commissioned a report on the best practices for virtual reality, which was written by Nonny de la Pena. That report can help determine how to evaluate the affordability of a project before starting it.

“The goal is to come up with a set of best practices around narrative, around the impact,” said Jennifer Preston, Vice President of Journalism at the Knight Foundation. “Who is viewing these experiences? They do evoke tremendous emotion. What are the guidelines that can be put in place?”

And then there’s the question of whether virtual reality is worthwhile when evaluated as a cost of customer acquisition.

“These tools require resources, and it does not work at the level of a metropolitan newspaper. Video doesn’t really work for most news organizations,” said Richard Gingras, Vice President of News at Google. “$50 advertising CPM (cost per thousand) for a video doesn’t work unless that video draws 200,000 views. The production costs are too high, the shelf-life too low, and the audiences not large enough.”

The exploration around VR is an unaffordable luxury for a local, independent newspaper.

Storytelling. Beyond the video tools of virtual reality and 360-video, journalists have more storytelling tools than they know what to do with.

Twenty years ago, there were only a few elements to covering a story in print: the main narrative text story, a headline, a photo and a graphic, perhaps a sidebar. “Today there are many more tools for storytelling. I used to keep count. I stopped at 60,” said Tom Rosenstiel, Executive Director of the American Press Institute. “The challenge of being a great editor or a great journalist is being able to pick which tool to use, knowing that this story will mean something to people in this form. That’s a lot harder than saying it in a sidebar and a news story.”

There are basic digital tools such as annotating speeches and fact-checking in real time. The Washington Post does that for every Donald Trump speech. It invites readers to provide the analysis themselves. “Those things are hugely popular, and they don’t get talked about in the way 360 or VR does, but those tools are powerful,” Baron said.

The most cutting-edge tools, like virtual reality, may not be what serves the public at that moment. After all, the most powerful videos of 2016 did not include any of the virtual-reality or 360-degree video projects mentioned above.

“I wonder whether with these tools we’re still elevating the primacy of the journalist’s perspective,” said Sharon Pian Chan, Vice President of Innovation, Product and Development at The Seattle Times. “What were the most important videos of this year? They weren’t virtual reality or 360 video. They were videos shot with mobile phones of black men dying during routine police stops.”

“The most important role the journalist played was not producing a virtual reality experience,” Chan continued, “but reporting on the context of what was in the video. What happened between the police officer and a man before the camera was turned on? What happened in the justice system after the camera was turned off? How did the community react? Journalism is about getting as full a story as possible, not just what happened in the video.”

The New Forms of Journalism:
Mobile, Podcasting, Reporting & Automation

Seventy percent of the globe now uses a mobile phone. By 2020, that will rise to 80 percent. By 2025, with the advent of the Internet of Things, there will be 50 billion devices — for a total of five billion connected humans on earth.i

“The poorest people in the world will eventually have smartphones,” said Gabby Stern, Director of Media & External Relations at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “This allows others to reach and engage directly with those facing challenges, to get a better sense of what would help them lead healthy, productive lives.”

Later this year, fifth-generation wireless trials known as 5G will begin, eventually enabling the delivery of data at gigabit speeds to mobile devices.

Mobile as a public information broadcast network. The evolution of mobile technology represents the continuing opportunity to share public information in the 21st century, just as radio and television did in the previous century.

Frieda B. Hennock, the first female commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, created public broadcasting in the 1950s. Her work laid the foundation for establishment of National Public Radio stations and children’s television on public television.

Mobile presents the same opportunities and public responsibility for dissemination of public knowledge, observed Joaquin Alvarado, CEO of Reveal/Center for Investigative Reporting. “The same questions asked of airwaves for television and radio apply to information distributed on mobile devices,” he continued. “Who owns the network? Who is building the network? How are the public interests served or not served? If you’re a young person in Mississippi can you even afford the unlimited data plan to get access to The Washington Post?”

Podcasting. Podcasting has emerged as a promising opportunity for national public radio on mobile phones. WNYC has 50 million subscribers to its podcasts. WYNC is entirely supported by underwriting.

The high advertising rates that podcasts are generating even has some in public radio wondering whether it’s a bubble. “I keep asking myself whether we are in a podcast boom or a podcast bubble. It’s probably a bubble because we have no data. The CPMs are so high but they may be artificially high,” said J.J. Yore, General Manager of WAMU in Washington, D.C. “Podcasts are like the newspapers when we delivered the whole thing, but we didn’t know whether someone read a story on (page) C3.”

Many believe podcasts represent a new commercial and content frontier for media companies. “The unique thing about podcasting is it follows you around all the time,” said Julia Turner, Editor-in-Chief of Slate. “I think of podcasting as hours upon hours that can be media-tized…. It makes me think it’s not a bubble.”

The vast majority of podcast distribution and consumption is, however, controlled by Apple’s iTunes marketplace. As one participant noted, until meaningful distribution channels open up, publishers are in a pretty weak negotiating position unless your company’s name is Apple.

Reporting and Automation. Those 50 billion devices in 2025 will gather information on the five billion connected humans.

“The ancient job of journalism was to gather information. The gathering of information at the City Council — that will be done with technology,” said Reed Hundt, former Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). For instance, the city council meeting would be captured by video, broadcast online and stored in a searchable archive by any citizen.

Intel has distributed 360 video technology to NBA and MLB that could replace the role of umpires in calling plays, Hundt continued. “Now you watch the umpires gather around the screen. That’s an algorithm in 15 seconds. They’re what journalism can’t be thinking it should be doing: Playing an umpire role,” Hundt said. “If there are only 7 plots . . . if a computer can beat the best player at Go, it can fit any story into the best plot.”

The Washington Post and the Associated Press are using automation technology to generate stories about corporate earnings and sports game results. Still, the Post recognizes that machine-generated stories cannot serve as a substitute for the work of a reporter.

“We’re going to have a machine tell us what the scores of the Olympics are. But, I don’t know how you go to a city council meeting, and it tells you what happened. There’s no way a machine can tell you that,” said Marty Baron, Executive Editor at The Washington Post. “A good reporter will figure it out, not just what happened at the meeting but what happened before the meeting. I don’t know that there’s a machine that can do that,” he said.

Even Google still sees the need for journalists. “We at Google have invested a lot in supporting verification. We were a founding member of a group called the First Draft Coalition dedicated to developing best practices for journalists around verification and how to approach misinformation online,” said Olivia Ma, Head of Partnerships at Google News Lab. “I don’t see any time in the near-future where we’re not going to need journalists to step in and help sort fact from fiction.”

If machine-generated stories are not able to replace all the news writing done now, the trend toward automation requires a brand new consideration.

Many think news has become a commodity. The story that “this happened” is a commodity. Analysis, experience and context are the premium service.

“Externally focused journalism is helicoptering in and telling people what happened,” said Jeff Jarvis. “Internally focused journalism says, ‘What does this community need to meet its goals?’”

iEricsson Mobility Report, June 2015.

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