Building sustainable media innovation through “futurecasting”

By Francesco Marconi

The Associated Press collaborated with innovation agency Frog Design to imagine the future of the news industry, drive cultural change and embrace innovation.

A strategic planning technique, “futurecasting” enables organizations to make decisions about where to focus their growth efforts. At AP, we’ve used it to consider an array of provocative — yet plausible — alternative futures that provide the necessary context to explore new opportunities.

“It’s essential to look ahead and anticipate change,” said Jaime Holguin, AP’s manager of news development. “The frequency of technological change is exponentially growing, with platforms, trends and opportunities popping up continually in unexpected ways.

“As a company, we have to be nimble and be able to foresee and adapt to disruptive change.”

According to Mayo Nissen, an associate creative director at innovation agency Frog Design, futurecasting shifts organizations’ perspectives in two ways:

1. It causes us to focus on the outcome of our actions, particularly as they impact users, customers and consumers.
2. It forces companies to consider the future, where their actions will have come to life, before working backward to understand what needs to happen today.

Making these mental leaps can be powerful enough to help organizations think about who and what they want to become, and what they need to do to get there.

“We work in an incredibly fast-paced news environment, so it’s valuable and necessary to step outside the chaos and think about strategy, and where the news business is going,” said AP Managing Editor Brian Carovillano.

Thinking through divergent futures

The first step we took was to research major events signaling technological, cultural, regulatory and industry changes. We then conducted workshops to extrapolate insights that would help develop future scenario-based forces shaping the future.

Nissen highlighted that the key to crafting not just intellectually interesting — but also useful — features is to first choose which elements of the present we want to challenge. The goal is then to work internally to make these changes not only possible, but at some deeper level, true.

We did so by forming a cross-functional and inter-disciplinary group of individuals and immersing them in these possible scenarios to better understand what AP needs to do to be successful into the future.

Hypothetical media scenarios

Pandas and puppies

The first scenario included a world where all media consumption and distribution is done through platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. What would be the role of journalists in this hypothetical society?

The importance of efforts such as fact-checking and user-generated content verification emerged as key areas for future consideration.

The ad model broke

Keeping in mind the growth of ad blockers, we conceptualized a second future state where advertising no longer exists. How do news organizations generate revenue to fund their journalism?

This question pointed us to the direction of exploring new business models and to better support our clients with products and services that could justify them charging premium subscriptions to their clients.

Changed consumption

We also considered the dominant role context-aware devices and the internet of things would play in the next 10 years. How does the news media industry change if consumption and distribution is driven by data collected by smart devices?

Possible answers required us to think about emerging platforms such as smart assistants, driverless cars and smart homes, and the role that news personalization will play in those environments.

Self-gathering news

The final scenario materialized around the growth of artificial intelligence and its impact on the news industry. How should media organizations operate in a context where smart machines and algorithms drive the process of newsgathering, production and distribution?

Using automation to turn data into text stories, leveraging drone journalism to capture different perspectives and developing new forms of data-driven insights all arose as possibilities.

Making sense of future scenarios

Through the futurecasting process with Frog Design, we challenged assumptions about newsgathering, production, distribution and consumption — and considered worlds where each of those stages would be radically different from today.

Applying these artificial stresses on AP’s core capabilities helped us then determine immediate steps to increase not only the organization’s resilience, but also set it up to thrive — regardless of which of those hypothetical scenarios comes to pass.

By choosing a longer timeframe, we can ensure that the actions that arise from futurecasting will effect lasting change at the level of corporate strategy and organizational capability, as well as for individual products and services.

“The most valuable thing I took away from this process is that there are many potential paths forward, but it’s impossible to always know which one is the current one,” Carovillano, AP’s managing editor, said. “So you set yourself up to be flexible and nimble and to seize opportunities as they arise.”

Building future strategies

As a result of our futurecasting, we developed a company-wide roadmap that includes actions we can take today to remain relevant in the face of inevitable change and uncertainty.

“Strategic planning at AP has always involved looking ahead, but our tendency has been to focus on the near term and the coming year’s budget in particular,” said Jim Kennedy, senior vice president for strategy and enterprise development. “That inevitably led us to plan for a handful of projects, rather than to imagine the future.”

Overcoming that mindset was critical to driving real transformation and taking the industry lead in content automation and other areas, Kennedy said.

“We imagined that first set of future scenarios back in 2015, and they have all come true to one extent or the other,” he said. “Anticipating where the world was headed, and where we needed to be, has been a great motivator.”

Francesco Marconi

Francesco was the manager of strategy and corporate development at The Associated Press. He is also an affiliate researcher at the MIT Media Lab and an Innovation Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.