How to own our platform

The story of Jason and Miriam happened because most news organisations in the nondescript future left their own platforms to reach a much bigger one on social platforms, just as NowThis famously did.

It is not a likely future as most news companies has seen the value of subscription based business models and have a hard time giving sharing the income with Facebook or others. The monetization history of must social networks has also been lackluster for most classic news organizations.

And building a paywall that fits your audience is not easy and will probably not be a one size fits all model created by a social platform.

On top of the business model issues you the trust in the platforms is at an all time low. The reasons for that are many, but the saying “never build your business on sand” comes to mind.

So yes, the bleak future described in the earlier blog post is not a likely. But how could we make it even less likely?

The editorial development team could be one way.

Because it allows you to get the most out of your platform and let it evolve with the audience and trends. It gives you the opportunity to experiment with formats and storytelling. And it gives you the means to create new products that better respond to your audience’s need.

So how do we go about doing that? Here is a few ideas from my own team:

  • Create visibility by winning awards. The high profile projects tend to drive the direction of the newsroom. And the awards make it clearer were that direction is. Use those highly visible projects to experiment with form.
  • Build simple tools that let the newsroom tell their stories in a more engaging way. The reporters expect to be able to do more than you text.
  • Test and create new products align with the business strategy. It is probably much faster for the editorial development team to do the proof of concept than to let product and big development in.

Their platform

“Can you help me out one second?” asked Jason leaning back in his chair in the almost empty newsroom.

“Something’s not working.”

“I said something is not working,” he repeated but this time loud enough to cut through the noise cancelling in his web producer’s headset.

“Huh…?” she said removing the ear muffs while swirling in her chair.

“The story won’t publish. The Platform says it’s violating the policies on accuracy.”

“Oh, let me see…”

Miriam quickly tapped through the slides on Jason’s monitor.

“You need to add another source. After the whole fake news brouhaha, they insist we source experts on both sides on any subject.”

“God…! Nobody in their right mind can argue that climate change isn’t happening.”

Miriam shrugged, and turned back to her own monitors: “Platform policy, man…”

“I miss the good old days,” replied Jason, mostly to himself.

His and most other news company had moved their publication onto the biggest social media platforms. Frustrated and tired of playing catch up they had given up on running their own websites and apps.

Gone where the days were they wrote bug reports and tickets that we rarely done by the overburdened development department that struggled to keep up with the latest personal data regulation and the ever changing in app browsing that broke the presentation of their stories.

The big platforms provided all of that, but much smoother, better and an audience. And it was free.

All of the news company’s developers and most of the technical people had been let go and replaced with cheaper “content producers” that could reach a wider audience through social media than they would ever be able to on their own platform.

And with no website to build for the editorial developers were also let go. Most were picked up by the platforms.

“This is not the only opinion on the matter,” Jason typed into his last slide before adding the extra source.

Then he just sat for a bit. Sighed and pressed “Publish”.

IDEA method “Foreign Correspondents”

The foreign correspondent method unveiled that several issues relating to how Journalists and Developers work together in newsrooms are international. For this I interviewed editorial people that work closely with tech people plus one developer in USA, Canada, United Kingdom and Norway. Many of their take-aways align with my own experiences in Denmark.

  1. There is great potential. Developers bring both new tools to the newsroom but also other viewpoints that can help create better Journalism.
  2. Journalists and developers often have a poor understanding of what the other group does. The interviewed journalists and editorial leaders feel a strong need for the groups to learn from each other. They recommend working closer, embedding developers in newsrooms or employing “translators” to help the communication.
  3. Editorial especially have a lack of knowledge of how long something will take to build. Developers feel that expectations are often unrealistic.
  4. The relationship between editorial and product is more strained than between journalists and developers in a newsroom setting. The lack of understanding seems greater.
  5. Developers need to be put into the mix earlier and be part of the central decisions. They need to be respected as just as creative as journalists. But the business seems to be moving in the right direction on this issue.
Voters would like to but don’t know what the political parties stand for

Voters would like to but don’t know what the political parties stand for

I have been in charge of or part of our digital election coverage at TV 2 Denmark during several elections. And one piece of feedback that we keep getting is, that the voters are having a hard time figuring out what the political parties actually stand for and how they differ.

In Denmark we have a multiparty system with about 10 political parties that overlap a lot and tend to crowd around the center of the political spectrum and around certain topics like immigration. The many parties foster consensus and is thus different from example the US system, but the issue of opaque politics and diffuse agendas is probably applicable elsewhere.

Because being informed about the way the political parties and their candidates will take you country is the essence of making an informed decision when voting. And people tend to want to do that. It might even raise the (already high) election turnouts.

See network in full screen.

Voters would like to but don’t know what the political parties stand for

All the feedback, evaluations and focus group work I have read as a digital project manager for the election coverage in Denmark points to one major conclusion: The voters are having a hard time distinguishing the political parties when looking at what they actually want to change. Thus their choice ends up being based on superficial reasons like tradition, likeability etc. We need to change that.

I propose doing it by keeping to the the following values:

  • Citizenship because taking part in democracy is the essence of what this project aims to achieve.
  • Independence because democracy in its essence contains a multitude of opinions. For this to work it has to be non-partisan.
  • Fairness because objectivity is an unattainable goal, but fairness shouldn’t be.
  • Empathetic Listening because both the political parties, the media and the government institutions has long been criticized for not listening.
  • Openness is related to fairness. We need to explain how we got to out conclusions.

The event

The event weeklong event is funded by people with deep pockets and an avid interest in support civic society. The participants would be politicians, teachers, academics, engineers, people form news and advertisement, but most importantly: Plenty of the most affected voters, as in not the politically active people that has probably already made up their minds.

First, they share world views and experiences. Especially the voters with the issue. Then the other professions chime in.

Then, they split into team that want to attack the issue from different directions. The teams are made up with relevant people to make them able to make their solution into a semi workable prototype within the week.

During the week the teams discuss, iterate and test their ideas.

In the end they all present and the most promising of the proposals are funded for further work.

Passport + Feminisme

A regular passport as explained to a Martian:

  • A piece of paper – a mini booklet – that signifies where on Earth I was born, what nation-state I belong to and the legal privileges that comes with it.
  • Every time you enter a new country, you get a stamp in the passport thus creating a track record of all travel.
  • A standardized picture of me is in it along with my fingerprints and signature.
  • It is the only thing that will make people believe who I am no matter where in the world I am.
  • It allows me to travel across country borders but some passports are better than others. Singapore is #1, USA and Denmark share #2 and Kenya #58. Afghanistan is the worst. I can update it to let me stay longer than usual.
  • I have to buy it from my local government but it expires after a certain number of years. Usually ten.

A feminist passport would…

Take the form of a necklace, an armband, a watch or many other forms.

It is used for travelling but doubles as a safety device, that can call emergency responders and notify emergency contacts when triggered.

A location chip contains all the travel data and personal information needed for travelling. As the main goal is raising safety it will also contain emergency data i.e. contacts and blood type.

The necklace and and armbands can be triggered by yanking them apart in case of an emergency.

When triggered it sprays a mist of ID spray that is impossible to wash off but can be seen by using UV light to identify the attacker.

How can we save democracy and restore trust?

1) Voters would like to but don’t know what the political parties stand for

All the feedback, evaluations and focus group work I have read as a digital project manager for the election coverage in Denmark points to one major conclusion: The voters are having a hard time distinguishing the political parties apart when looking at what they actually want to change. So, their choice ends up being based on more superficial reasons like tradition, likeability etc. I have a feeling that a similar thing is happening in the U.S..

The political process is not always as open and transparent as one could have wished for. Lately it has even gone the wrong way in Denmark. Politicians are getting more ways of shielding their administration and policy work from the press and public.

Many information campaigns aim at raising the number of people voting. But the effort to get people involved in Politics should really take place between the elections. Interest in joining political parties has also dropped over the years as the direct democracy in most parties has dwindled. Making more people politically active would perhaps have a network effect in attacking the problem.

The media market has in many ways favored less coverage of policy content and more process coverage. The market mechanisms in the media business is to blame for this. Quality news coverage is blooming for a select elite of subscription media companies. But we need to figure out a business model that informs the rest. Bundling of news sources might be a solution.

Gamification of the political coverage like the Scandinavian candidate tests is a popular but last-ditch effort to let the voters get to know who they are voting for. Open APIs and easier access to public data like voting data would make it easier to not just hear what the politicians plan on doing but actually survey what they are doing.

2) People feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of daily news and need a way of staying above water to be informed citizens

Part of the reason people are overwhelmed and unable to sort through the news anymore is that they simply don’t trust it. Fake news and low-quality news have blurred the lines to a place where many simply just tune out. But I believe that being a critical consumer of news (and commercials) is the best way to avoid this. And it should start in our schools.

A push-back on both social and mainstream media might be what is needed to slow down and look up from what is in front of us right now.

The same market force issues that affected the voters’ knowledge of the political parties’ agendas are at play here. Cable news and social media has whipped the news into a frothy mess where it gets increasingly harder to tread water and stay above.

The web is still not set in stone. So, news corporations should experiment and invest in new ways of updating and summarizing the news. The current article format and social media ecosystem is often doing the opposite by making readers find old and obsolete articles instead of collection all we know.

3) Facts don’t matter anymore

The last year has given us an almost total collapse of facts. Institutions and media organizations are getting away with outright lying. The result is apathy and probably also polarization. Stronger libel laws might take the edge out of it. But they might just end up creating an even worse situation if used to strong arm the people pointing the actual liars.

It used to be okay to dismiss women and use ethnic stereotypes in everyday language. It is not anymore. Mainly because of changed social norms that made it unacceptable. Might this issue also be attacked that way?

It turns out there is a big market for non-facts and untrue content as long as it riles us up and satisfies our preconceptions. But it also turns out the death of facts is a huge business opportunity for a select group of media companies like The New York Times and Washington Post that have experienced the famous Trump Bump. But how do we make the bump scale?

Fact-checking and truthfulness ratings have not had a major impact on the spread of fake news. De-platforming might but also brings its own issues. That is not to say that code doesn’t have a role to play. Platforms need to get better at removing or flagging misinformation but it will probably not be the sole solution.

Journalists and developers

It still happens once in a while that my girlfriend and I look at each other and almost in unison exclaim:

“I can’t believe that we get to do this!”

We both got Journalistic fellowships in Cambridge this year. She the Nieman Fellowship at Harvard and me the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Her focus is managing how your 269-year-old newspaper moves from broadsheet paper to infinitely smaller LED screens. Mine is the relationship between developers and journalists in the newsroom.

I left several of such relationships when I took a leave of absence and got on the plane from Denmark. Back in Denmark I was the only journalist in our editorial development team. I think of it as a producing innovation lab. Apart from me it consists of three programmers and two graphics artists. Together we develop new ways of doing and presenting Journalism.

Before that I tried just about every position in digital Journalism in Denmark. I have reported from the field, edited the frontpage, and helped build our social media desk. I have covered everything from terrorist attacks to missing animals. I have been in charge of our digital election coverage. And I have increasingly done all of this through the collaboration with people with technical know-how.

Because in my view technology offers one of the brightest beams of light for the current state of news media. Digital journalism used to just be words under an image, but not anymore. Code is just as important.

Recent events in politics had made the crystal clear why we need a vibrant and engaging news media that can compete with the social networks for people’s attention. And in order to do that and stay relevant we need to get smarter and bring new types of people into the newsroom.

But even though the partnership between our journalists and developers can be beautiful, innovative and yield completely new ways of telling stories, the relationship is not without pitfalls. Because we speak different languages and employ even more different workflows.

So how do we make it work?

That is the overarching question I will spend my time in Cambridge trying to answer.

The MIT Media Lab is an obvious place to explore the dynamics of interdisciplinary collaboration and get a feel of the technologies of tomorrow. The potential is endless, but this class (Technology and Social Change) will probably help to reign in the optimism too. But looking at the flip side of the tech that we call upon to save the news business sounds like a healthy thing to do and something I look very much forward to this semester.