Buckle Up: The Days of Creeping Advances Are Gone

By April 17, 2019 Case Study No Comments
We are at the beginning of another revolutionary era in communication. Digital products like streaming videos and e-books seemed like remote possibilities in the 1990s, but consumer habits have shifted dramatically as technology advanced. While successful entrepreneurs can’t always predict the changes in store for the media industry, they can focus on the potential unleashed by digital technology.  As a former managing editor for commodities at Dow Jones Newswires, Terry Wooten identified the kinds of trends that would move markets. In this case study, Wooten discusses how new digital technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain are transforming the way organizations practice journalism.

As commodities editor for the Dow Jones Newswires and two other financial newswires, I and my staff of reporters were always looking ahead, trying to anticipate what would move markets. Although I am not an expert prognosticator, I did learn that sometimes what develops may surprise you. That is because, even at our most creative, we tend to imagine incremental change, instead of transformative change.

Take, for example, the Speed Graphic camera, which was standard issue for press photographers from the early 1900s through the late-1950s. Next came the new and improved 35 mm cameras, commonplace in newsrooms until very recently. Today, the “camera” used by many journalists is the smart phone, which shoots video, as well as still photos, and can be used to record interviews, take notes and connect reporters in the field with editors and sources alike. In other words, this most recent iteration of the “camera” not only transformed the way we think about photography, but also how we go about gathering and disseminating news.

Terry Wooten, former managing editor at Dow Jones Newswires.

It used to take a while for a new technology to be widely adopted. But, with the advent of the digital revolution, the pace of change has accelerated as both new and old technologies are adapted for multiple uses. In medieval times, town criers were the chief means of news communication. Royal proclamations, local bylaws, market days and advertisement of goods were all proclaimed by a bellman or crier moving through the area. Gutenberg changed all that with his introduction of the printing press and movable type to Europe in the 15th century, which brought about the rise of the publishing industry. Next came the broadcast era and the introduction of over-the-air delivery of news in the 20th century. By the late 1990s, 98 percent of U.S. homes had at least one television set, and those sets were on for an average of more than seven hours a day. However, the stage was already set for the most disruptive technological innovation yet. The binary code that powered the digital revolution – a string of zeros and ones – would transform and reshape the media landscape in the 21st century.

Remembering the Past and Appreciating Progress

Statistics, prices and numbers drive commodity and financial newswires. I have witnessed rapid change in news reporting, editing and publishing since I entered the profession in the 1960s. I recently asked some of the financial writers and editors who worked with me how the digital revolution had affected their work.

In the pre-digital era, reporters and statisticians at commodity and financial newswires used to collect the statistics “by hand,” you might say. Since statistics compiled by the governmental agencies could cause prices to rise or fall sharply on the commodity exchanges, these figures were carefully guarded until their official release. At the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, journalists would stand behind a bank of telephones before the release of an official report. At the appointed time, government officials dropped books with reams of statistical material by each telephone. Once the embargo was lifted, reporters dug into the books for the data and called in key figures to an editor on the other end of the line. Each report usually had several long tables of statistics. These tables had to be dictated to the editor. He then relayed the material to other editors or clerks in the office for release and publication. It could take more than an hour to dictate a long table.

Today, reporters are still sequestered in the USDA office, but are given discs with the material, which they can massage and organize into a story. They cannot file their stories and statistics until a bell rings, signifying the embargo is lifted. But with this new digitized process, security around the numbers is much greater, and the news stories are more likely to be accurate. Plus, imagine the time and manpower saved as journalists have taken advantage of digital access to other types of governmental materials. No more trekking to the courthouse or local library to do on-site research. A reporter can make PDF copies of 10-K filings, court documents and major governmental reports, instead of paying 10 cents to make a print copy of each page. Alternatively, a reporter can pull out a smart phone, snap a picture and email it to an editor or to a source. In short, transformative digital change has enabled news organizations to report, edit and publish information faster.

The digital revolution also presents journalistic challenges. These include how to shape content to engage an attention-challenged news audience and how to anticipate what technologies to invest in. Lewis D’Vorkin, who shaped the successful online edition of Forbes magazine, noted in an interview that in order to survive, editors and reporters will have to reinvent their work and reimagine their role in gathering and disseminating news. “The reality is that journalism will need to evolve to meet the needs of the platforms and devices that consumers use to get their news,” D’Vorkin said. He emphasized that for the last 20 years newspapers have tailored their articles to appear on laptop screens. But today, 50 percent of content is consumed on a mobile phone.

“This puts demands on the traditional article template, which has been carrying the water for journalism for such a long time,” D’Vorkin said. “Now it needs to evolve into a different kind of format.” For each story produced by a journalist today, “there will have to be three, four or five default positions, and the one that works best for the story will have to be used. That changes the whole notion of content creation and production and changes the platforms that newspapers use to publish. It is fairly dramatic.”

Still More Behind the Curtain

Internet analyst and researcher Mary Meeker, a partner in the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, reports the number of internet users grew only 7 percent in 2017, down from 12 percent in 2016. The significance of the slower growth rate is not yet clear. Part of the decline could be attributed to the fact that more than half the world is online and, as a result, there are fewer people left to connect.

Scientists, analysts and commentators differ on whether technology will continue its rapid development or whether growth will slow. Some academic economists believe that we have incorporated all the “easy” technological advances and that new breakthroughs will be more difficult, writes Ben Miller in Innovation Files.

No matter the speed of change, all types of news media – including print, broadcast and digital – will continue to be confronted with new opportunities and challenges as they attempt to adapt to emerging technologies. These technologies include artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual and augmented reality, 3-D printing and blockchain.

Artificial Intelligence and Robotics: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a series of algorithms that allow a computer to “think like a human.” AI is the backbone of the internet and is already in extensive use guiding our decisions. For example, algorithms determine what Amazon shows us when we want to make a purchase online. Google, Twitter and Facebook use algorithms to determine which content appears in front of its users.

The AI industry is expected to expand by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 50 percent through 2015, when it is projected to be a $127 billion industry, according to a recent report by the World Economic Forum. Some news organizations, including the Associated Press and Washington Post, are using AI to identify data for complex articles about financial transactions, for example. Others are experimenting with using AI to produce simple business and sports articles from the data in corporate earnings reports or game statistics.

AI also powers robots, such as drones, which are being used by many media outlets, as well as first responders and insurance companies, to get images from locations that are difficult to reach on the ground. Robots and AI can also be incorporated into the manufacturing and distribution processes of news organizations to increase the efficiency of publishing news articles and optimizing a medium’s reach.  

What does the future hold? According to one timeline laid out by the World Economic Forum, by 2049, we may be reading a New York Times best-seller generated by AI. However, there are still challenges to be surmounted in the widespread use of algorithms and robotics in media companies. Among the challenges: a lack of the sort of “rich data” that allows machines to determine patterns and draw accurate conclusions, the ability to verify the reliability of machine-generated conclusions and the upfront financial investment. All of these challenges may limit the widespread adoption of AI and robotics in smaller news organizations. Nevertheless, Tod Loofbourrow, a former artificial intelligence instructor at Harvard and the CEO of ViralGains, predicted in an article for the online trade magazine Digiday, “We’re at the very beginning of a 20-year megatrend” in which publishers and marketers will make increasing use of AI to learn about individual consumers’ preferences.

Virtual Reality: Many baby boomers first met Virtual Reality (VR) through an obsession with “Star Trek.” That television series introduced the concept of the “holodeck” – an enclosed space where characters in the series could create holographic settings and stage “events” that seemed real. VR is an interactive, computer-generated artificial environment. The simplest form is a 3-D image on a personal computer that can be manipulated with a mouse, allowing users to zoom in or out, or view the image from multiple vantage points. More sophisticated efforts involve headgear with wrap-around display screens and actual rooms augmented with wearable computers. Virtual reality is primarily experienced through two of the five senses: sight and sound. Haptic devices – such as suits, gloves and joysticks – add the sensation of touch and allow the user to feel the images as well.

VR is used extensively in art, music, film, video games, as well as in advertising. Large news organizations, such as The New York Times, have also incorporated VR into their daily news streams. The Times has produced more than two dozen films and documentaries enhanced with VR and introduced a series called Daily 360, which produces video from places around the world, including battle zones. The VR films can be watched on Google Cardboard or with smartphone apps.

“VR is great for creating a sense of place,” explained deputy video editor Marcelle Hopkins in a 2017 New York Times interview. “We often use it for stories in which the place is important to the story. … VR can transport our audience to places they otherwise couldn’t or wouldn’t go, as in ‘The Antarctica Series,’ which takes people below and above the ice of Antarctica.”

In a similar vein, augmented reality is a set of technologies that superimpose digital data and images on the physical world. AR is already used extensively in social media and is also being utilized in conjunction with VR in large news organizations, such as The New York Times. Incorporating both VR and AR into daily news feeds requires a “significant change of thinking” and a significant investment in technology, D’Vorkin said. Therefore, cost is a key barrier to wider adoption of these two technologies in smaller news outlets.

3-D Printing: NASA expects that the Mars Space Station will be built using a 3-D printer shipped from earth on the space ship that first lands on the red planet. A 3-D printer takes a digital 3-D model and turns it into a tangible object by incrementally adding material (such as plastic or metal) into a mold until the object is complete.

Manufacturers around the world have adopted 3-D printing techniques to improve production efficiency. Prototyping, production and proof of concept are the three most popular uses. Those who have incorporated 3-D technology into their production processes believe it gives them a competitive advantage, allowing them to offer high-quality, less-expensive and more-innovative products, according to Forbes.

While 3-D technology has been used to create everything from prosthetic limbs to inexpensive housing, media companies are only beginning to realize the benefits and incorporate 3-D into both production and marketing. Large entertainment companies have embraced 3-D printing as a quick and less-expensive way to create sets and props for today’s films and theater productions. Both fantasy and historically accurate movie sets and props can be produced via 3-D technology. The 3D models for the props can then be licensed to toy manufacturers, for example, who pay royalties to the movie companies on the physical models they sell to fans of the movie. The video game company Playstation employs a different approach. It attempts to build loyalty with its customers by holding 3-D design contests, encouraging fans to build models of sets in video games without worrying about copyright infringement.

Blockchain: Of all the new and emerging technologies, blockchain is perhaps the least understood and least exploited by media companies. Most of us know blockchain as the technology that enables cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin, to be traded on the internet. Blockchain is a shared, immutable ledger for recording the history of transactions. It fosters a new generation of transactional applications that establish accountability and transparency for contracts, deeds, payments. As a result, blockchain technology is already being used widely in in many business and industry sectors. In the media space, there are several interesting start-ups using blockchain. For example, The Colorado Sun news outlet was started recently by former Denver Post editorial staffers using a blockchain format.Technology consultant MarketsandMarkets forecasts the overall use of blockchain in media, advertising and entertainment markets to grow from $51 million in 2018 to $1 billion by 2023. That’s a compound annual increase rate of 81 percent.

Blockchain-enabled applications can improve the distribution and production of content, help prevent illegal file sharing, and enable transparent rights management.Publica is a free blockchain publishing platform that allows authors of books to manage how their work is distributed, and how they’re compensated for it. Po.et is building a universal, blockchain-based licensing and payment platform that allows journalists and other content providers to set up a profile displaying their work and also establish direct channels with interested publishers. “Blockchain technology and the Po.et platform sanction a new network effect to not be ‘owned’ by a single entity but maintained by the collective owners of the content itself,” wrote Jarrod Dicker, the company’s CEO and a former Washington Post executive, in a recent blog post.

What does this mean for the future of journalism?

In this ever-changing landscape, perhaps the late science fiction writer Isaac Asimov summed it up best, “It is change, continuing change, inevitable change that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without considering not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be.”

How then will journalism schools and departments at universities and colleges teach journalists of the future? According to Dr. Will Norton, dean of the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, no medium goes out of existence, but legacy media change as technological developments bring a new medium into existence.

“New media are changing language and thought processes,” Norton said. “They have democratized the reporting process and made it more difficult to identify facts because anybody can use them, and highly-skilled professional reporters are not the only persons doing important media work.”

Journalism or media education tries to teach reporting, writing, speaking and design in a manner similar to the principles of the early proponents of the discipline of rhetoric, Norton said. He said the skills taught should be appropriate to all media.

“When journalism education has focused on a [single] medium, it has been weakened,” he said. “We have to keep from focusing on one medium or another as media develops. We have to focus on what always has prepared folk to be good journalists – get the facts and communicate them well.”

Or, as the CEO Paul Daugherty, co-author of the book Human + Machine: Reimagining Work in the Age of AI, explains: communication is both an art form and a science.  At a 2018 virtual gathering of executives from various industries sponsored by Fortune, he focused on the sort of skills companies will need in the age of AI.  “It isn’t necessarily the STEM skills, and it isn’t necessarily the coders and machine learning specialists. . . . Tere is one new set of jobs where people will need to help AI, to help the machines, and we call these ‘trainers, explainers and sustainers’ . . . . We have been hiring people like sociologists, psychologists and even poetry majors who really understand the nuance of language and can help train the engineers and the machines.”

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