Five ways to future-proof journalism

Dec 10, 2013
Five ways to future-proof journalism

Journalism is being upended by large-scale technological and societal forces. It has become clear that the old business models of journalism no longer function. To succeed in the future, journalism must reinvent itself as a business, and journalists must reinvent their careers.

Soon people will not only consume content on their phones, tablets, and computers, but also on new devices that are only beginning to be introduced into the market. Additionally, a savvy audience filters content. Content must pass through social network referrals, personalization technology and republishing from trusted curators to reach an audience.

Good journalism is always valuable, but it needs to work with these trends instead of against them. The future of the trade is "journalism as a service." Journalism that is meant to be targeted, republished, referred, filtered and embedded. Journalism that works with the new content infrastructure.

As a journalist, you might ask how you can best manage your career in this environment. The answer: make the following things happen, or align yourself with journalistic organizations where they are already happening.

1. Structure Your Content

There are two sides to this issue. The first side is that the days of WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) publishing are fading fast. Soon you won’t know whether your article is destined to be viewed on a tablet, phone, read out loud in a car or scanned in Google Glass. The decision concerning the exact way that text wraps around a picture is being taken out of editorial hands. The other side of the coin is that content is going to be handled and manipulated by software, such as personalization systems. The more structure and metadata your content has, the better it can be targeted to its best audience.

When you hear the term “metadata,” you may think it’s all about tagging. However, we can do better than tagging. At Axilent (disclosure: I am the founder and CEO),  we use a concept we call a relevancy model: content items have attributes (usually numerical scales) that represent aspects of why people like them. For example, if an article had a seriousness attribute, with 5 indicating critical hard-hitting news and 1 indicating celebrity gossip, that attribute could be used to create personalized recommendations for a reader once their preference in that attribute is established.

2. API-first Publishing

If you have been involved with your organization’s website, you may be familiar with the terms “responsive design” and “mobile first,” usually indicating the priority of making your site mobile-friendly. While these are admirable goals, in the near future they aren’t going to be sufficient. We need to take it a step further: to Application Programming Interface (API) first publishing.

NPR was an industry leader in taking on this strategy. The idea is that the canonical publishing medium for content is not the desktop website, nor mobile, nor any other audience-facing medium. It’s the API. All the versions of a publication should pull structured content from the same API, then visually format it in a manner appropriate to the medium.

It’s already hard enough to publish desktop, mobile and tablet versions of a publication, but the popularity of multiple screens is only going to increase. We can expect new form factors to be continuously introduced over the next decade, including in-car telematics systems, wearable computers, home appliances, etc. Content will have to adapt to all of these, and an API-first strategy is the only scalable way to approach these changes.

3. Different Flavors For Different Contexts

As a person moves through their day, their context changes and the optimal format for content delivery changes. Someone sitting in traffic in their car is primed to listen to audio, and may have a substantial block of time on their hands. Someone riding a subway may be better served reading summarized articles on their phone. Someone at home on the couch may want to consume content on television.

Consider offering your journalistic work in different flavors, with each optimized for the context of your audience. An article could have a summarized version suitable for someone with very little time who needs to just understand the gist, and also a longer version available for someone with more time. Interactive features might be associated with the article, but only if the delivery medium supports them.

4. Measure The Audience Better

Journalism now means conducting an ongoing conversation with your audience. To this end, you’ll need to understand them better, and that means better measurement.

Sophisticated analytics, far beyond plain traffic numbers, should be made available to everyone in the publishing chain, all the way back to the journalist. Such analytics provide critical feedback leading to insight on how work is received and can help everyone to make smart decisions about how to create new content going forward.

At Axilent, we analyze users by looking at what we call PAGES; their Personas (behavioral segmentation), Affinity (what they like), Goals (what they’re trying to accomplish with their interaction with a website), Environment (the technology, location and other circumstances surrounding their interaction) and Sentiment (how they feel). Cross-correlating this information might show, for example, that restaurant reviews are shared most on social media when Italian restaurants are being reviewed. You never know what you’re going to find.

5. Monetize Engagement

Finally, if you’re in a position to influence the business model of your publication, consider monetizing audience engagement. The current commodity page view, traffic-first approach to monetizing content has cheapened and distorted the quality of journalism on the web, because it has become more important to get people to land on the page than to engage them once they have arrived.

Instead, consider that all page views are not created equal. If someone scrolls to the bottom of the page, spending about the right time to indicate that they have read the entire article, or if they share, print or email the article, their page view should be worth more than someone who just bounces off the page two seconds after landing. Future ad revenue models for online publications should charge premium rates for the more highly engaged segments of their audience. This will lead to both more effective advertising, and better journalism.

Do you have any other ideas for how we can future-proof journalism? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Loren Davie is the founder and CEO of Axilent, a modern contextual content targeting platform. Check out Axilent's blog for more posts on content and the future of journalism.

Photo: Multi-screen via Shutterstock

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