If you want to understand the future of journalism, we first need to take a step back to understand the forces that are pushing it inexorably forward.
Let’s zoom way out to look at the big picture. Not just “the future of journalism,” as if it were an isolated question. Let’s not even start with current hot topics, such as whether an algorithm is better than an editor, or if bots will replace apps.
Let’s go all the way up to where the air is thin. We’ll be able to see quite a distance, but I should warn you to be careful about the free flow of ideas that is brought on by the exhilaration of oxygen deficiency in combination with magnificent views. Things might appear obvious and easy in that state of mind. It might remind you of that liberating first drink on a long flight. Then when you’ve landed, everything's a mess again and lots of people start bugging you about everyday stuff.
But for now – let’s stay up high and look down.
Information is just streaming along in a way that makes it more accessible and cheaper than ever. But it also seems that people are really only using it to explore what’s already familiar to them. In the United States, 60 percent of internet users now say their primary news source is Facebook. To become informed citizens, they trust an invisible algorithm that they don’t understand and can’t hold accountable for curation of the news.
Technology is beginning to develop itself, all on its own. Up until this year, artificial intelligence was science fiction, a stream of algorithms that might turn into reality sometime in the future. But in March this year Google's DeepMind artificial intelligence program defeated Mr. Lee Sedol, the human world champion in the ancient Chinese board game of Go. We were forced to move the future 10 years closer to us. CNN ran full speed ahead. In April, they were the first western media company to release a newsbot on Facebook’s Messenger platform. Powered by artificial intelligence, it can handle your request for news in a second. The CNN bot isn’t very smart yet, but it’s learning.
Capital is streaming more freely and faster in a way that makes it look more like information than money, at least from on high. And this money flow no longer heeds the boundaries that we formerly used to define nations — in fact, Capital has fundamentally lost its connection to nations. The disruption of the financial sector will most likely resemble the revolution in the media industry, but the scale will be much more massive. Will there be any money around to finance free and independent journalism to report on this huge change?
Politics is not keeping up. Political undercurrents with roots in Europe’s darkest corners are making coinage out of Capital’s disinterest in the Nation, in combination with increased migration, and are trying to re-establish nationalism. These forces are calling journalists “enemies of the nation” and directly threatening free media. The ethnically, culturally and religiously homogeneous national state — the caliphate — is the political idea that is growing fastest right now. Opposing forces that want to promote humanistic values are labeled “politically correct” and are hated and threatened in social media. In tougher and liberally underdeveloped environments, they are labeled “kafir” and are hated, threatened and decapitated. These are the darkest conceivable political times. Again.
People are increasingly streaming across national boundaries for two reasons. Either they are fleeing for their lives from areas hit by war, poverty or famine, or they (a much smaller, but equally clear stream from all over the globe) are migrating towards the large technical centers on the American West coast and the Chinese East coast. Their proven brainpower gives them the opportunity to work with some of the most powerful institutions on the Earth today. Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Tencent, Alibaba and Baidu are neither American nor Chinese companies whose purpose is to strengthen the US or China. These internet giants are global entities with no national concept beyond paying as little tax to them as possible, which is why historically large amounts of capital are now floating in tax havens outside of American territory. Internet giants are rebuilding our world, but not our nations. They are revolutionizing the way we distribute information, but have no obligations to free and independent journalism.
But what do these five meta trends have to do with the future of independent journalism? Let’s descend a bit and have a look around at how each manifest with our feet back on the ground:
Information and journalism
It’s the morning rush hour in the neighborhood surrounding London University, heading towards Facebook’s European head office. Going through rush hour on the way to the office is a very concrete experience of the new world order. A steady stream of people, ages 20 to 40, of every possible ethnicity, are walking firmly and decisively towards their daily bread. This is a migration of the sharpest brains from all over the globe, on their way to one more day of developing the world’s fastest growing journalistic platform.
Nick Wrenn, head of Media partnerships at Facebook, has convened a meeting of Scandinavian publicists to get feedback on a product called Instant Article and launch a number of news items on the platform. Every Scandinavian publicist of note is represented. He presents the news:
- Mentions. A special function reserved for notable people, journalists, artists and politicians with their own followings. Via Mentions they get access to tools such as live video and live interaction.
- Ask the Leaders. An interactive program format and pure editorial project where Facebook users can have live discussions with a public personality without being filtered by a program host. Sky News has already tested this format as the first partner. The first guest was British Prime Minister David Cameron, who interacted and answered questions for two hours with Facebook users.
- Live video. BBC and Danish TV2 are actively using this live service on the Facebook platform to profile their correspondents with an audience that doesn’t watch linear TV.
- 360 video. Facebook’s video player can now handle a format where you can twist the image so that you see everything in 360 degrees. This was effectively illustrated by a YouTube star who filmed himself surfing through a rip curl, and you can experience everything in 360.
Facebook has worked out a publishing strategy that they are very actively marketing to European publicists. Nick Wrenn presents the newly formulated vision for Facebook publishing: “Connect people to the content and creators that best inform and entertain them.” Can anyone with something to say remain uninvolved?
Facebook currently has the world’s best audience segmentation for targeting information. But they have a low level of intentional data. This is one of Facebook’s few weaknesses. Simply put, we could say that the internet began with anonymous users, went to identified users and is now rapidly moving to a place where we know what users want. A marketplace is extremely good at gathering data on what user intentions are when it comes to consumption. This is what we identified in the Schibsted Global Publishing strategy during the fall of 2015, and presented to Schibsted’s board at the beginning of December 2015.
The strategy in brief: Using Schibsted Media Platform, we structure the data and load the publishers’ inventory with data from marketplaces, as well as other companies with significantly revealing user data. The publisher in turn provides frequency, reach, premium advertising inventory and interest data to the ecosystem and a deeper understanding of the user.
This was in large part a more precise version of Schibsted’s earlier ecosystem strategy, which — in my view — was lacking in its view of publishing. Now the strategy is in place and the media platform is under construction — but where is Schibsted’s promotional road show to publishers around the world? We have nothing to be ashamed of. What we have produced so far in the Schibsted Media Platform is the best content management system I have ever come across in the publishing world. But to move it requires a top-level dialogue with partners, coupled with a slow and methodical selling job, if we want to be part of the game. And I’m afraid there isn’t much time.
Google in this respect has the exact same strategy as Schibsted — to charge publishers’ inventory with data about user intentions. Google has the world’s largest collection of intentional data via its search engine. They have an effective ad platform in Double Click. Their weakness has been that they lack a platform for publishers’ content. But they’re changing that now. Google has put a massive number of developers to work on building AMP — Accelerated Mobile Pages. AMP cuts across all existing platforms, including Facebook. The prototypes they’ve shown so far are lightning fast and glide seamlessly over your own platform and social media. Facebook and Google are just now moving in completely opposite directions. Facebook is making its platform more into a walled garden where you are welcome to plant things, but they do not want roots to grow outside of that garden. They have succeeded in getting publishers all over the world to reduce their presence in the food chain to being production companies and content suppliers. Google is opening its platforms more and more. It’s visible for anyone to see that this is a battle between a proprietary internet and an open web.
Ever since Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos bought the Washington Post, it has been under complete digital renovation. Next to the Schibsted Media Platform, it is the most advanced platform for publishers in the world. The platform, called project Loxodo, permits (among other things) panel testing of content against competitors’ content or against that of the Post itself. It includes built-in modules where an editor adds three versions of headlines and pictures; an optimization algorithm decides which version to use, based on user data. The platform can send out different versions to social media platforms and its own platform, depending on which combination of text and image performs best. The platform also supports optimization of a data-informed ideal publishing flow. The Washington Post promotes its platform widely. According to a conversation I had in March with the Post's Chief Product and Technology officer Shailesh Prakash, they now have five partners on board for Loxodo, and five more in the pipeline.
No one says it out loud, but consider for just a moment whether Jeff Bezos plans to fill the Post’s inventory with Amazon’s gigantic volume of intentional data…Is Schibsted’s publishing strategy about to become someone else’s reality?
The startup trend in publishing is clearer now than it was a few years ago – startups build their brands deliberately to try to become so strong they trump the platforms they’re built on. It appears to be an alternative survival strategy. The outcome of that is undoubtedly some good journalism. Whether it also works for survival remains to be seen.
The two clearest cases are BuzzFeed and Vox. Both started as platform players, and Vox still to some extent is. Founder Jim Bankoff started Vox as a tech company with a passion for journalism. Their platform is impressive, but today they have adopted more of a cross-platform strategy. They don’t pull enough traffic directly to their platform, so instead they are shifting their focus to lead quality development in journalistic niches and branded content for all platforms. In this they are challenged by the scruffier BuzzFeed and one of the coolest publishing brands on Earth: Vice.
They all specialize in engaging users on a deeper, more personal level than traditional media. They are daring to go deeper into niches in order to build credibility and relevance, compared with legacy news media that often emphasize readership and breadth over niches and personality. This is an interesting development in journalism. The question is: Can it survive without a firm proprietary platform? Or are we witnessing a march into the abyss on platforms that offer effective distribution, but no sustainable business model?
Another question is if Schibsted is able to light up the future path for publishers globally. An overall map has been drawn by Schibsted’s global publishing strategy. The rest is a question of will, ambition and beliefs.
Technology and journalism
Austin, Texas bubbles over with faith in the future, developmental optimism and the will to seek in-depth understanding of digitalization during the week of South by Southwest Interactive.
Kevin Kelly, managing editor of cult tech magazine Wired, has the ability to follow tangents of current trends to capture the underlying movements.
Now he’s sitting on a stool, talking to thousands of enraptured listeners. This is the year that artificial intelligence took a giant step that no one thought would be possible for another ten years. The fact that a computer beat a world champion at the board game Go is a sensation. In all probability every new innovation will be built on some type of artificial intelligence in the years to come. Kevin Kelly has devised a formula for the startups of the future: Idea + Artificial Intelligence = Future Product. In another ten years he predicts that the formula will change. Artificial intelligence will then be a commodity. A stream you tap into. The formula will be turned around: Artificial Intelligence + Idea = Product.
Kevin Kelly could have added that this development is generally expected to play out on chat platforms. One of the largest paradigm shifts since the introduction of apps and Apple’s ecosystem via their App Store is waiting to happen. As this is being written, Facebook has just opened up the “Bot Engine” on their Messenger platform. A bot is basically a bit of software that can carry out automated tasks via a script over internet at dazzling speed, handling ad hoc user requests using artificial intelligence to deliver better and better responses. Another front in the platform wars is emerging…
So far my imagination can’t see beyond applications in text and perhaps voice. For example, you put a direct question to United Airlines through their bot in Messenger: Is the flight on time, are there seats left? And you’ll get an answer in less than a second and can buy that seat with one click — or by saying the word “buy” to the bot. Compare this with the airline’s current app, where some poor developer has had to contend with a communications manager who completely loused up the app with information you don’t need, and which takes you many minutes to dig out the same answer.
Through bots, you’ll soon be able to buy things and have them sent to your home, make restaurant reservations, buy food and hundreds of other services you need daily. And it’s no coincidence that these bot-driven services are going to be built on chat platforms. Both the technical architecture and the user experience are prepared for this. The only thing that isn’t ready yet is the advertising market. There are no ad products developed for chat channels. But you can bet that there will a long wait for that innovation.
Chat platform usage is breaking all kinds of records. Facebook Messenger alone has about 800 million active users every month. That’s more than a hundred times as many who used an iPhone when Apple launched The App Store. Chat applications today have more users than all social networks in the world combined.
Bots are also getting names. The latest financing rounds in Silicon Valley were almost all about bots: Howdy (a bot that powers teams by automating common tasks), assi.st, (a traveling/shopping chat bot) Hyper (a bot that makes your computer more efficient), Pana (a travel bot), Scout (a gaming bot) and Luka (a restaurant bot that is developing into connecting users with other kinds of bots).
So you could say that a bot on a chat platform is like an invisible app. And since we all love to refer to popular culture and are depressed by references to Minority Report, which described the interaction between human skin, glass and content before it became a reality, everyone is now talking about a much older film. Stanley Kubrik’s slow, poetic space adventure from 1968 – 2001: A Space Odyssey – set to the orchestral strings of Johann Strauss, with the HAL 9000 computer in a leading role. That’s where we’re headed. Being able to ask a computer whatever you want, and it will answer you. Or ask it to do things, and it will get them done.
Read a bit further and you’ll meet my friend Tom Xiong in China, and you’ll understand that we are looking way too much at the US if we want to understand the internet. In China, this is already a reality, and Facebook is struggling to catch up.
Apart from a number of news services expected to be driven by bots on chat platforms, artificial intelligence is mainly going into storytelling via virtual reality.
Every media group is experimenting with virtual reality in some form, from the Swedish Broadcasting System to the New York Times. But what does it mean? Kevin Kelly says that what we are seeing is a transformation of the internet, from being a place where we’ve collected information to being about connecting us to experiences. The future of live coverage is not just about real time. When the team arrives on site and gets their VR cameras going, you’ll be able to be present in the event. We’ve seen this already in 360 video, when CNN experimented with a 360 camera during President Obama’s State of the Union address — or when ABC set up a 360 camera in Times Square during that powerful late-winter snowstorm. All published on Facebook.
For journalists, all of this most likely means that artificial intelligence will completely change the way news is discovered, curated and consumed. News bots might be a new paradigm, we might think of news apps as an early step of packaging news that later develops into bots within communication apps. Bots based on artificial intelligence will be able to deliver ad-hoc tailored news that might link you to the immersive, rich VR user experience of live events. I’m looking forward to reading about Schibsted’s bot strategy for publishing.
But for now, let’s end this reflection with a quote from Kevin Kelly from Austin, Texas: “Remember, it has always been hard to believe the future.”
Capital and journalism
It’s a slow afternoon in a fashionable residential area in Los Angeles. Anthony Watson watches his pool cleaner packing up his equipment. His pool cleaner belongs to the 100 million people in the US who exist outside of the financial system, with no relation to a bank other than when he sends money to his aged parents in Juárez. Each transaction costs him $25. This drives Watson, Barclay’s former CIO, nuts. Because he knows the real cost of the transaction: two cents.
Based on this type of frustration and deep insights into banks, Anthony Watson quit Barclay’s and started Upload. In little more than a year, the company has carried out transactions worth one billion dollars. This breakthrough into the market wouldn’t have been possible if the banks had understood disruption in depth and adopted a reason to be stronger than financial margins.
Instead, about $19 billion will be invested in Fintech this year, in companies like Anthony Watson’s Upload.
Banks are ganging up in order to defend their old business models. But today they are only protected by politically motivated regulations. Technology is challenging them at a fundamental level. And guys like Anthony Watson, driven by both technology and a credo to offer a fair deal to his Mexican poolguy.
There are obvious parallels with the media industry here. Anthony Watson claims that what is happening now with money is that it is clearly being reduced to information — to ones and zeroes. When the internet made distribution of information free, media companies were thrown into their most turbulent period ever. So why should anyone pay $25 to transfer money to their family in Mexico? Digitalization has made it illogical, and also immoral, according to Watson. He has never had to pay such fees to a bank for such simple services, for the simple reason that he has a different relation to his bank than a Mexican pool cleaner.
Is there anything that can change this world order? Digitalization says yes, while the American banks’ deeply rooted ties to Washington politics say no.
Some people speculate that Blockchain, the technical platform behind Bitcoin, the internet currency, could be used for the world’s exchanges and marketplaces. This would mean a massive disruption for banking systems. This would theoretically mean that all of the world’s back office systems would be automated. According to an interview in Dagens Nyheter with Sweden’s former Minister of Finance, Anders Borg, this would mean that well-educated bankers would be suddenly declassed. He compares this with how the media industry was completely transformed by digitalization, and journalists felt declassed. The deep concerns this created on the job markets paved the way for populism. The only true cure against populism is increased wealth for the people, according to Borg. People don’t want to change overnight. We want to experience security, be seen, and hear that we are important.
If digital job destruction does hit the finance sector – which many believe will happen – there will be many more visible upheavals in society than we experienced in the media industry, since the world has so many more financial people than journalists. On the whole, it would be a more just world, since it would be harder to force Mexican pool cleaners to pay crazy fees — a moral crime. But at the same time this development would yank the rug out from under a place it has never been yanked before — an educated middle class in the western world.
Meanwhile, the societal upheaval from digitalization, and the digital transformation of lots of other industries, will make it vitally important to have a strong, independent media to help explain and facilitate the discourse.
Politics and journalism
Over the Christmas holidays in 2015, there was a midnight raid on free journalism in Warsaw, Poland.
“All journalists, editors and news producers can be fired!” announced Piotr Glinski, the Minister of Culture. The government could then assign its own handpicked new managers to Poland’s state-run TV company, TVT, and Polish Radio, plus the public news agency PAP, and 17 local channels.
There was no difference at all in the wording of the official Polish explanation and the choice of headlines in the Swedish extreme rightwing publication Nordfront: “New law in Poland to clean up cultural Marxists in state-owned media.”
“Culture that is publicly financed should be patriotic and tell the world about Polish heroes.”
That wasn’t taken from some hate forum on the net, it’s an extract from Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlos’s inaugural speech. And to make sure no one misunderstood it, her media spokesman, Krysztof Czabanaski, explained that it is about “changing public media to national media.”
In this way, Minister of Culture Glinski can justify the new media law, which gives him direct political control of media companies, through a well-worn argument from many countries today:
“Media companies are crawling with liberals and leftists.”
Not a word about journalism, of course. How it’s a process and a craft, and how, if it is to be non-partisan, it must be taught and practiced with no regard to your own political opinions. And of course not a word about the importance of an independent media, free from political pressure. Instead, a public statement from a member of parliament from the Law and Justice party who said: “Impartial media is an idealized myth that makes it harder to run this country.”
This is, of course, a view of media and democracy that will prove to be disastrous. We recognize this all too well in European countries today. Political forces that say that independent media are actually a political elite who suppress people and their true opinions are like a warped mirror where independent journalists are painted as a degenerate liberal invention that the nation must get rid of.
In an interview with the German newspaper Bild, Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Witold Waszczykowski defended the implementation of media laws and the disavowal of the Polish Constitutional Court by saying, “The previous center-right Polish government followed a political agenda that was skewed to the left. As if the world, according to Marxist theories, was decided by fate and could only develop in one direction — towards a new mix of cultures and races, a world of bicyclists and vegetarians.”
People who ride bicycles and eat vegetables may be suspect in some ways to some. But government influence over such groups in a democracy should reasonably be none at all.
In Hungary, what Poland is trying to accomplish is largely already a reality. A new government body – the Media Council – has been active since 2010. It only has delegates from the ruling party, Fidesz – a nationalistic and strongly conservative party. All media groups – including individual bloggers – must register themselves with the Media Council. Media can be fined for “politically unbalanced” or just “generally unbalanced” reporting. What is balanced or not is decided by the government. The Media Council can also demand that journalists reveal their sources.
We must be able to see this now. How this constant hacking at media is part of a policy. How the systematic labelling of journalists as suspicious is an ideology.
And this, as well as publishers’ self-confidence, is fading as fast as their business models are crumbling. It’s starting to look more and more like a build-up of a perfect storm against a free media.
If we can’t manage to see this on our own home turf, we can see in Poland how quickly these political movements can be converted into laws. In Hungary we can see how they can become political practice.
The populist forces growing all over Europe today are all directly opposed to the media and accuse them of being partisan and of being a part of a conspiracy against the people. Let’s be clear about one thing – these forces don’t want independent media; they want politicized media.
If Schibsted ever doubted why we’re here at all – go back to the core, to free independent journalism. This is where we find our raison d’être. The soul of our digital ecosystems.
The craftsmanship of independent journalism is under severe attack from several directions. It needs strong and smart defenders more than ever. Schibsted should not hesitate on “to be or not to be” in journalism. You have the best story in the world on the tip of your tongue – how the strategy of the digital ecosystem saved free and independent journalism. It needs to come off that tongue and go out to the world – with confidence and self-esteem.
People and journalism
The hutongs in Beijing are aligned mainly in an east-west direction. But it doesn’t help. For an outsider it’s impossible to navigate in neighborhoods whose alleys were built under the Yuan dynasty (we in the west would call it the 1200s). Mongols under the legendary Kublai Khan established the network of streets that still sets the tone in central Beijing.
After an intensive week of visits and studies in the Chinese digital ecosystems, I’m on my way to a dinner down in the hutongs with my friend Tom Xiong. Once CEO of tv.nu, today he’s an entrepreneur and founder of a startup in Shanghai.
We connect on WeChat, asking about each other. A map comes up. I see Tom in the telephone, and he sees me. We write a few greetings and instructions and then turn on the voice function until we are 50 meters from each other and start waving.
We have just used one of 1200 services on WeChat. There isn’t any digital service you’ve heard of that isn’t already on the platform. Everything from airport parking to ordering a cook to fix dinner, or someone to do your nails or clean your home. And yes, a technically brilliant news feature with a problem – there is no such thing as free and independent news in China. But technically it's better than most news apps you see in the west. The development in China, with digital ecosystems tightly knit into the actual transaction of money for service, is what drives things like the bot frenzy, and payment solutions on chat platforms back in the western hemisphere. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s well-known fascination with China isn't just about his wife’s family background and learning the language. It’s about what his company is best at – seeing, learning, understanding and adapting with the social graph always as the foundation.
It’s turning into a fine evening. We talk about how the clearest needs for journalism have been turned 180 degrees. Just ten years ago, researchers were pretty much in agreement that the need for journalism emerged because citizens generally lived with an information deficit. More news and information was good for the informed citizen in a democracy. Even information whose quality could be questioned was better – in an academic sense – than less information. Partly confirmed stories could land a question on the agenda so that discussion and clarity could follow.
Today the situation in the grand dialog among journalistic researchers is roughly the reverse. Citizens live in a surplus of information. So why do people need journalism?
Media research is pretty much in agreement that the publishers’ mission must to a large extent be about verifying information, curating and explaining complex events.
These aren’t new assignments for a newsroom, but is the emphasis? Or are most editorial teams still generally focused on pumping out more news, when users generally suffer from information surplus?
This is a big issue. Too big to settle even on an evening like this with inspiring company in the hutongs. We claim that the award-winning Omni has grasped something that exclusively helps users curate. And Vox is also on to something, when they completely focus on explaining the news rather than reporting it.
A little later at a bar that is reminiscent of someone’s living room, my thoughts begin to zoom around again. The bar’s owner is what we in the West would call a hipster, although he is close to 70 and from Beijing. His bar has the largest collection of Scotch I’ve ever seen (including Scotland). The bar is tiny, but furnished in a way that makes it impossible to say if we are in Beijing, Vancouver, Stockholm, New York or Barcelona. The owner is playing Lou Reed on vinyl, the walls are decorated with his art, which could be described as a digital rework of photographic negatives. He’s working casually on his computer with something at the same time that he serves us. There are two cats on the bar counter. A modern bicycle is hanging on the wall. I don’t know if he eats meat, but this suddenly reminds me of “a new mix of cultures and races — a new world of bicyclists and vegetarians.” So far, the Polish nationalists have a point. It’s not that their analysis can’t be understood, it’s their conclusions that are outrageous.
Here in the bar, a new global set of shared values becomes concrete and tangible. A new community where art, culture and technology meet — without respecting any national boundaries. A commercial meeting that makes it meaningless to travel somewhere to shop — everything is the same. And it’s the same microbrew and the same conceptual restaurants and the same boutique hotels and the same brands, and the same transport company and the same big chains. But it’s a communal meeting where the center of power is a number of internet giants rather than the government of national states.
The young people we observed in London that morning — no matter where they’re from — would surely feel more at home with the old Chinese hipster and his digitalized art than with the community their nation-states are so desperately trying to maintain.
But what about those left behind at home? Those without sufficient brainpower or other capacities that might enable them to manage migration to the internet giants, into their promised land of technology and art. What’s to become of them?
How many of them will find a place in the new global community? How many jobs will its revolution – digitalization – create? And how many jobs will be destroyed?
You’re feeling it now, right? The air is thinning out again… but the connection to our thoughts about journalism are crystal clear:
This is one hell of a story.