We need to use technology to fix news, not just disrupt it
Technologists like me tend to see the beauty in innovation -- the efficiency, the clean lines of code and well-ordered rows in databases. The delight when something “just works.” And, to be truthful, the dollar signs that come with the massive productivity gains, cost savings and fortunes to be made in the next new thing.
Yet, there is another side to this story, which is the disruption and dislocation felt in society as whole industries are remade -- or collapse -- under the disruptive forces of tech. It seems to me that the category where we currently are most keenly confronting this kind of disorganized capitulation to technological forces is in media, and more specifically in news.
Yes, dirty newsprint is replaced by the elegant design of websites and social media. If I were to draw a schematic of 1980s “voice of God” media and hold it up against the way information flows today it would be clear that we now have a much more advanced system for movement of information in ever faster and more direct ways. It’s really a remarkable and positive thing when viewed from that angle.
But, let’s face it: The advertising-driven digital media business model is broken. Fake news, “native ads,” memes created mostly to irritate those on the other side of the political spectrum, close-up photos of celebrity cellulite -- these I could do without. Yet, it seems like even mainstream media is grasping at some of these tactics in desperation to survive.
Innovation can go both ways, of course. And even as digital is killing newspapers and publishers are doing a Facebook dance with the devil, could entrepreneurial enterprises also help revitalize news?
There are venture capital efforts that are trying, such as Matter.vc and the Knight Foundation’s Enterprise Fund, run by Benoit Wirz.
It’s an important problem to solve: When the internet put travel agents or some of our other beloved Main Street businesses out of business, we might be nostalgic. But, it was never seen as an existential threat. However, media disruption goes to the heart of an informed society. We are consuming more information than ever, but are somehow weaker than ever in our ability to understand each other and the substance of the issues.
As a business person, I see the weakness in the ad-supported media model online, and doubt there is some kind of floor under this market. Subscriptions have gotten a pop from the contentious presidential election. But, we’re not going back to the fat operating margins we once saw in the newspaper industry.
This to me poses an incredible -- and important -- challenge. Is there a way to enable the delivery of substance and expertise from authoritative sources, while stripping out the need for clickbait headlines, zingers and other shallow nonsense that seem to be required for survival in an ad-driven model?
I think there is. The solution, in my mind, is as much a business model innovation as it is a technical one: that we need to redraw the lines of how content is paid for, and how news sites get compensated.
One thought is that we all need to “become the media.” Public relations, is, after all as broken as the news segment. How can PR people get a reporter to cover them when newsrooms are at half the strength they were in the 90s? But the way business leaders have been trying to approach this task of becoming the media is all wrong. It’s lots of native advertising and advertorial claptrap that anyone with half a brain ignores on the page.
Imagine if technology were used instead to feed real ideas, real commentary, to news publications in a marketplace format. It’s not hard to imagine an eBay for smart analysis. Or an Amazon for opinions.
But, it hasn’t happened already, and it’s because there are some structural assumptions about “the way things have always been done” that simply no longer work. To allow for a freer flow of ideas through media, in a way that does not degrade quality and that elevates conversation and has impact, requires a new mindset: Business people need to be out there talking about what’s happening in their industry without making it about themselves, their companies and their product.
If experts in everything from politics, business and markets were to provide to news platforms full-throated opinion and sharp analysis, with transparency and without spin or self-reference, you can imagine where this can both elevate the discussion as well as provide a hit of oxygen to publications who can sell ads (or subscriptions might even be better) around that content that would flow freely to them from those who come from places of deep knowledge and insight.
But, how in the world could we ensure these experts wouldn’t talk their book? What is missing is some kind of review system or feedback loop that would downgrade anyone trying to pitch their wares or spin their subject. Great ideas, analysis and insight should float to the top. Technology has been able to do this across multiple industries. That’s why you can have relative confidence that your eBay purchase will arrive. The seller has five stars.
News should be next.
Sure, some business leaders are incapable of writing. Some can say insightful things on video. Or others might be able to produce a profound graphic. What is required is having the courage to strip away the calcified layers of PR and marketing that has hardened around us. And really say what we see happening and what we think is important for the world to know.
Can business leaders talk about the world in plain language, and say what they really think? Even if it might be a bit provocative? Can we step out of our comfortable corporate safe zone, where we hide behind our PR teams?
I think to the extent that we do, there is room for us to both have conversations that matter, and that support the news media that we rely on in a free society.