The five forces transforming media revisited (updated)

Updated: at the end of the post, discussion notes

I had a great discussion today with a group of journalism students at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium). I facilitated a discussion about the five forces transforming media, based on the book The Age of Context by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel  (about mobile, social media, data, sensors and location):

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After this discussion I talked about how we adapt our newspaper and newsroom practices.

I also presented a Prezi about how journalists (or bloggers of course) can use social media to make the people formerly called ‘the audience’ participate in the production of the story or project:

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I was very fortunate: my students had very outspoken opinions. They insisted on the need for well-designed digital news media. It seems people get bombarded with far too much information they are not interested in.

Some students suggested to present only a few news items deemed ‘need to know’ to all users. So each day journalists would select two, maybe 5 at the most, news items as ‘universally’ important. There would be much more content, but that content would be suggested through personalized filters so that people get news in function of their own preferences. Tags, key words, hidden tags and semantic techniques were suggested to accomplish this.

Another suggestion was to use Amazon.com-like tools such as ‘people who read this article also read these other articles’. I mentioned Flipboard which uses the social graph as a filter and Zite which allows users to correct the suggestions made by the algorithm (by giving a thumbs up or down).

However, not all students liked the idea of personalized digital news media – some of them wanted the newsroom to continue to decide the news selection and hierarchy. They fear that personalized news could lead to a filter bubble in which we only learn what we want to learn and block everything which is inconvenient.

We did not go very deep in analyzing how wearable computing could impact news media. Google Glass, virtual assistents will make us rethink the newspaper-metaphor for digital media in a very fundamental way, and I’m sure the issues of ‘filter bubble’ and privacy will stay high on the list of urgent discussion themes.

The Age of Context shows us the storm ahead for news media

What happens if we apply the lessons of the book The Age of Context (Robert Scoble and Shel Israel) to news media? Well, I tried it today for a group of communication experts invited by the Belgian company Outsource and we got an intense debate.

The Age of Context analyzes five forces which are developing rapidly and interacting with each other: mobile, social, data, sensors and location-based technology. What could it mean for news media?

1) Mobile: we’re still finding out how to use tablets and smartphones to the fullest extent. More often than not newspapers transfer their print content to the mobile device, making it swipable, adding some videos and links. I think tablets offer new ways of telling stories. Remember movies: these are not just recordings of theater plays, using techniques such as cuts we can deliver a new media form – we’re still in the early phase of discovering the ‘cut’ which unlocks the unique possibilities of the tablet.

While we’re doing that, a new kind of mobile devices is about to be launched: wearable stuff such as Google Glass, making it even harder to stay in the print newspaper paradigm.

2) Social Media: meaning new curation practices for journalists but also new distribution challenges. Flipboard and Zite for instance convert social streams into customized news magazines. People re-assemble the content of very different providers through the filter of their social graph and preferences.

3) Data: do news media use the data on social media and on their own digital platforms to get to know the needs and intentions of their communities? They try to do so, but much more could be done.

4) Sensors. If sensors make devices aware of what their owner is doing (traveling, running, relaxing…) one could imagine that news will be selected and transmitted in a way which suits the user.

5) Location. There is no reason to assume that a user of a Belgian newspaper who happens to be in New York City needs the same information as someone who is in Brussels.

I added some ideas about communities, which in part can mitigate the conclusions mentioned above. If a newsroom can determine efficiently what really matters for a certain community, they’ll be more able to produce a common news selection which is relevant for the users as members of that community. The news provides a common background for the social interactions in that community. Real life meetings, forums and chat sessions help the newsroom to open up and to gain deeper insight in the needs of the community.

Of course we also discussed privacy. The Age of Context is optimistic: respect for privacy concerns will be a competitive advantage for makers of devices or service providers. Not everyone is that convinced – maybe the new generation cares less about privacy.

There was quite some discussion about ‘who determines what the individual wants’. I have the feeling that it’s not the newsroom, but not the individual either. It will be an algorithm, which makes a selection for the individual on the basis of revealed preferences, social graph, sensor and location data, and expressed preferences (explicit likes and dislikes).

The changes ahead are tremendous (we only discussed news production and distribution, but then there’s also the impact on advertising which adds another layer of complications) and very hard to predict. Exactly the kind of situation journalists like…