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What tech trends will change journalism next: 8 good questions with futurist Amy Webb

Amy Webb thinks a lot about how emerging tech might affect the news industry, from anticipatory computing to the increased usage of smart virtual personal assistants and the rise of the drones.

She is the founder and CEO of Webbmedia Group, a digital strategy agency. She and her team work with clients to identify emerging technology that can help prepare them for future business disruption. Some of those clients are Fortune 50, 100 or 500 companies, like American Express; some are large non-profits, universities or governments, like the City of Chicago.

Then there’s their work with news organizations. Time Inc. hired Webbmedia to help search for content strategies for screenless computers. Webb also is a former board director of the Online News Association, and for the past five years she has led a session at ONA’s annual conference called 10 Tech Trends.

We talked with her about how major tech trends will change the journalism industry, and how to think about getting ahead of the curve.

1. You’ve said there is a conflict between being both a platform and a publisher. Where are organizations going wrong here and why?

Amy Webb

AMY WEBB: Companies like Amazon are platforms. Their platforms aggregate and distribute. Amazon also offers content, in the form of reviews and product descriptions – but the company itself does not oversee editorial quality. No one would mistake Amazon for a news source.

There have been cases when a breaking news event has caused people to use Amazon’s reviews section to editorialize (such as Mitt Romney’s “binder of women” remark, which caused this reaction). Rather than criticizing Amazon itself, bloggers and others wrote favorably or unfavorably elsewhere. It’s the same with products. If you order something on Amazon and it doesn’t work as expected, most people blame the merchant, not the platform. Even as Amazon enters the original video content space, it’s really still acting as a distributor.

The same is not true of content providers who have some basis in journalism.

BuzzFeed, Forbes and many others (The Onion included, though they’ll argue they’re just a humor site) are now taking native advertising content, or they’re opening up their site to outside contributors. Though technically there are disclaimers noting the distinction, there have been too many cases where placed content has reflected badly upon the news brand.

The Atlantic published an upbeat [sponsored content] story about the Church of Scientology called “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year.” Editors had to take it down and publish an apology. BuzzFeed’s [community section post] “8 Outrageous Things Planned Parenthood Was Caught Doing” that carried the subhed “The nation’s largest abortion provider has been caught doing some incredibly offensive, appalling, and illegal things” caused an uproar among the site’s regular readers. Newcomer Medium has been plagued with content problems, from the guy who said that all homeless people should be given a cheap computer and taught to code, to the now-infamous story about a woman who said her house had been raided because she Googled pressure cookers and backpacks.

The difference with the Atlantic, BuzzFeed, Forbes and the rest is that these aren’t simply platforms for distribution. The rest of the website has editorial policies in place. If a contributor on Forbes posts something salacious, it reflects back on Forbes’ editorial quality – even if there is a small “Contributor” written in extremely small, light gray font next to the writer’s name.

2. Most publishers who try to also be a platform seek some perceived benefit (e.g. building community, traffic, social sharing). What are other ways for news organizations to achieve similar outcomes?

The very notion of what a news story is needs to be reexamined.

WEBB: News organizations need to learn how to captivate their audiences.

This is especially important as our modes of distribution are about to significantly change. The onus is on news organizations not just to create compelling content, but to package it such that it’s sharable and digestible across numerous platforms: wearable technologies, screenless computers and the like.

The very notion of what a news story is needs to be reexamined.

It’s something we’ve been working on intensively with Webbmedia Group’s clients. If we know that there are new technologies coming down the pipeline that won’t offer a good consumer experience for the way we’re currently packaging news, what should be the next templates? This might mean adding in some utility, combining anticipatory or predictive tools to engage consumers and the like.

If a news brand is focused on native advertising or a contributor network as a way to gain traffic, to me that’s incredibly short-sighted. It’s defining “content” much too narrowly for long-term sustainability. At some point, we’ll see another glut of content, as we did about two years after blogging became popular. Then what?

3. Many of the tech trends you’ve discussed lately deal with the personalization of news and information (anticipatory computing, smart virtual personal assistants, personalized video and comments). Are there any pitfalls to watch out for as news organizations explore personalization?

WEBB: As with anything, pitfalls are in the execution.

A ‘personalization’ strategy can’t be one-size-fits-all.

We’re advising several of our clients on personalization now … but we know that what works for one news organization won’t necessarily work for another. The personalization formula itself must be personalized for each consumer group. So what works for Time Magazine isn’t necessarily going to work for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

News organizations should strive to create individual relationships with each and every one of their consumers, both current and potential. That’s a much more sophisticated approach than we’re seeing. If we’re being true to the word’s meaning, a “personalization” strategy can’t be one-size-fits-all, right?

4. News organizations would seem to need strong technology and people resources to personalize information to the level you spoke about in your presentation. What’s a good starting point for a small to mid-size newspaper that sees the value in personalization, but may not have many resources?

WEBB: The most important thing a small news organization can do is to figure out who, exactly, its audience is, and what the competition is up to.

This doesn’t mean launching a few focus groups and checking out the other news brands in town. For example, when we do this sort of assessment we look at four quadrants of competitors – one is “theoretical.” Especially in news, one main competitor is time. Consumers only have so much time in the day to devote to extracurriculars, and consuming local news content certainly falls into that category. Knowing that, who/what else is competing for your reader’s time? When you start to think more creatively, you’ll discover that a major competitor to a small paper might actually be something like Evernote.

I believe very strongly in collaboration. I like to figure out how to leverage existing consumer behaviors and desires to solve problems for them through extremely innovative partnerships. That way, a small newspaper can find that it’s just as powerful as national news organizations.

5. You discussed anticipatory computing primarily as a tool for journalists doing their job (e.g. MindMeld). How might news organizations think about inserting their content into any anticipatory computing used by their audience?

WEBB: I’d say that it’s less about inserting their content right now. At the moment, it’s most important for journalists to just understand that these tools exist and that they’re terrific for reporting.

That’ll change over the next few years, and news organizations should partner with those in the space to offer just the right content for the platform, versus all of their content.

6. You’ve said news organizations could leverage the popularity of MOOCs by reframing content or knowledge they already have. How would you suggest a news organization go about evaluating its content and determining what could be repackaged as an educational resource?

WEBB: I displayed a chart [at ONA13] that could be used by any news organization. It’s a matter of developing a system of templates and reframing the content distribution.

A lot of people make fun of listicles … but listicles are effective because they organize information in a format that’s easy to understand. The Washington Post ran a fantastic listicle by Max Fisher called “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask” that wound up driving significant traffic to the site.

So what we’re really talking about is packing content into different formats for different audiences. It’s not about dumbing anything down. It’s about making the content fit the consumer.

Webb's MOOCs-related slide from the ONA13 conference.

Webb’s MOOCs-related slide from the ONA13 conference.

7. Say you’re a lower to mid-level employee at a news organization. You see value in exploring these technology trends, but there doesn’t seem to be that kind of support above you due to limited resources or newsroom culture. Is there anything you can do?

It doesn’t cost anything to ask people questions. One of the best things journalists can do is to hop on a phone call with some of the startups in this space. Ask for a demo, to see what they’re working on, to talk about the future. You don’t have to be a tech reporter to ask questions about tech.

8. What about getting others to explore these technology trends, too? Any thoughts on how to build buy-in across your organization?

News organizations should find a few enthusiasts to share information about trends in technology with other staff.

Webbmedia Group produces a monthly public report that I know is used across many newsrooms for this purpose. We also do monthly and quarterly tech briefings with lots of companies to help them stay on top of the trends that matter most. Whether it’s my company, or another company, or someone inside a newsroom, having regular conversations about the changes in the digital landscape are essential to achieve buy-in across any organization.

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