When journalism meets Silicon Valley

By Francesco Marconi

We talked with executives from media and technology companies to explain the developing relationship between the two industries, which was also a source of discussion at a recent conference at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.

The symbiosis between two worlds — journalism and technology — that have historically had different cultures and business models, is creating both tension and opportunity.

News organizations are increasingly behaving like startups and journalists are expanding their skills beyond just reporting. They are leveraging data, building products and exploring new platforms to distribute content and grow audiences. How has this relationship changed the news industry?

Journalists are technologists

Journalism is increasingly dependent on and influenced by companies that dominate the social web. Facebook, Twitter, and Google are no longer “just platforms” — they are shaping how journalism is practiced and funded.

On the other hand, these technology companies are aware that journalism and content are crucial for the success of their businesses. For example, Facebook has been developing products such as Instant Articles, Twitter recently launched Moments and Google announced its Accelerated Mobile Pages project to help media organizations take advantage of their platforms and technologies.

“We are extremely optimistic about the future of news because of the ease with which voices of all shapes and sizes can find new audiences,” Richard Gingras, head of news products at Google, said. “And because of the various technologies that can change the very nature of journalistic expression — from the ability to use data journalism and manage our communities, to new forms of storytelling like virtual reality that can deepen our understanding of the human condition.”

Major technology companies aren’t the only prime examples of platforms influencing journalism, though. News startups such as NowThis and Newsy are creating social, mobile video and seeing success because of shifting audience demographics. Mic, BuzzFeed and Vice have also leveraged social media to their benefit.

But traditional organizations such as AP have not been idle, experimenting with social- and mobile-optimized formats that are shareable and quick to ingest. Our “10 Things to Know” series has proved to be successful, providing a summary of the most relevant topics of the day.

Journalists are entrepreneurs

With shrinking budgets and revenue pressures, many newsrooms are being forced to think innovatively with the resources they have available. In fact, they are leveraging methodologies that were born in Silicon Valley, such as “design thinking,” which puts experimentation, feedback and iteration at the center of the content and product development process.

“Design thinking is a process that journalists can use to maximize their storytelling creativity and engage their audiences,” said Paul Cheung, director of interactive news at AP.

But to learn these skills, journalists are linking up with the entrepreneurial community. For instance, The McClatchy Company, The Associated Press, A. H. Belo Corporation and Community Newspaper Holdings have partnered with startup accelerator Matter to bring innovation training to their staffs through boot camps held in San Francisco.

“With the extraordinary change that technology has brought to the news and information landscape, we think that the future of news depends on journalists and technologists working together to create a more informed world,” said Steve Grove, director of the Google News Lab, also a sponsor of Matter. “Google has created many technologies and platforms that have changed the media industry — sometimes intentionally, sometimes not — which has made us a player in the media landscape, even though we’re a technology company.

“And we want to have a much more collaborative, forward-leaning effort to help build the future of the industry alongside the most innovative people and organizations in media today.”

Matter Managing Partner Corey Ford explains the design thinking process to media executives and journalists. (Photo courtesy of Francesco Marconi.)

News organizations are more connected to universities and research

The education of journalists is becoming similar to that of computer science engineers, who must learn new programming languages every year. As news consumption patterns change, journalists need to develop new storytelling and reporting tools.

“Journalists today need to be able to juggle different skill sets that might previously have been divided among a number of specialist roles,” Nathan Griffiths, AP’s interactive editor, said. “They should know how to read and write code and understand how principles of design and development impact reader comprehension and engagement. They need to understand that sometimes, the code is the story.”

News organizations are becoming closer to universities, too. Students are exposed early to media companies and execute projects with them. For example, AP brings students from different institutions, including the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri, to collaborate on projects that include content creation, product development and marketing strategy.

But academia is also acting as a teaching practitioner. An example is that of Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, which brings its researchers and scholars to newsrooms to trains journalists. It also organizes on-campus events for journalists and media professionals.

“With digital innovation taking place at breakneck speed, it’s crucial that media organizations work closely with academia,” said Claire Wardle, research director at the Tow Center. “The only way the news industry is going to keep up with the technical expertise of Silicon Valley is by combining the theoretical knowledge housed in universities with the practical use cases faced by news organizations every day.”

Another success case of industry-academia collaboration is that of the NYC Media Lab, an organization that connects media companies to students and researchers to develop innovative projects.

“The smartest companies in New York realize that more than ever they must engage with ideas and people outside their own walls,” said Justin Hendrix, executive director of the NYC Media Lab. “This includes universities, where ideas and talent are nurtured, and the startup community, where they are commercialized.”

NYU Student Tommy Payne built a project called Fragments presented at an NYC Media Lab event. The story was shot on a Canon 5D MIII and XBox Kinect. Post-production work was completed using open-source software DepthKit RGB+D, which allows you to calibrate the footage from a regular SLR and a depth sensor to gain three-dimensional footage. (Courtesy of NYC Media Lab.)

News organizations are becoming venture capitalists

As traditional news organizations seek innovation and growth opportunities, millions of dollars are being invested into digital media startups. Venture capitalism is becoming a mechanism for media companies to diversify their offerings and reinvigorate their businesses.

For example, The Associated Press has invested in a startup, NewsWhip, whose technology is being used to solve needs in its newsroom. The platform enables social data mining to receive insights on which stories are trending and how to effectively deploy editorial resources. These tools are now being used by other major newsrooms, including USA Today, BBC and Bloomberg.

“Digital platforms are completely reinventing how information and stories get discovered, investigated and distributed,” said Paul Quigley, CEO of NewsWhip. “Journalists and media organizations need new tools to navigate and thrive in this environment, and that’s where the startups and new tech companies come in, innovating at the edges, and helping so-called old media become new media.”

Other companies are looking at investments as ways to grow their audience — for example, NBC with its recent investment in BuzzFeed and Vox, as well as Germany-based Axel Springer’s investment in Business Insider.

A look at the interface of Spike, Newswhip’s product that tracks social network activity around stories. (Courtesy of Newswhip.)

News organizations are becoming collaborative

Another path to innovation is through partnering with startups to inject new ideas and capabilities into the organization. AP teamed up with Graphiq, for example, to turn data into infographics and with RYOT News to create a virtual reality film series.

“Media and journalism are going through an incredible period of change and disruption,” said Bryn Mooser, co-founder and CEO of RYOT News. “When startups and traditional media companies can partner together, it means both can benefit. The startup can offer innovation and the established organization can offer reach and elevation.”

For a new area of opportunity such as virtual reality, other large companies are also opting to seek the partnership route. The New York Times partnered with VRSE to launch its virtual reality app and PBS FRONTLINE recently teamed up with the Tow Center and digital studio Secret Location.

New technology isn’t limited to virtual reality, though. In June, the Daily Mail partnered with ephemeral messaging startup Snapchat and advertising and public relations firm WPP to launch Truffle Pig, a joint venture that combines ad agency services, a newsroom and social media talent to produce content for brands.

“It’s been an amazing experience to work with the Daily Mail on their Discover channel and innovate alongside them,” Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel said at the time.

More of these partnerships are likely to develop over time. Is this environment setting the stage for a more interconnected media industry? Only time will tell.

Watch a recording of the “Journalism + Silicon Valley” conference, organized by the @TowCenter and sponsored by The @AssociatedPress and @NewsWhip.

Francesco Marconi

Francesco is the manager of strategy and corporate development at The Associated Press. He is also an affiliate researcher at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and an Innovation Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.