The emergence of new technologies is continuously providing challenges and opportunities for news publishers. This basic premise of news publishing requires us to ambidextrously balance operational excellence with strategic investment in the future.
This year’s South by Southwest (SXSW) conference, which was just held in Austin, Texas, provides a well-founded point of departure for discussing some of the major tech trends that will affect news publishing in the near future. In addition, discussing these trends and how to handle them allows me to add a dynamic perspective to the static view of cooperation in news publishing I provided in my first INMA blog post.
How do tech trends affect news publishers?
As news publishers, we are rarely the creators of the tech trends shaping our industry. Instead, tech trends — often driven by the tech giants and their acquired subsidiaries — affect us by providing a continuous flow of new challenges and opportunities that we must meet or exploit.
Even though it is hard to predict what trends will influence us even in the near term, it is usually fairly easy to predict the phases the applications of new technologies go through when they disseminate. To do so, we use models such as Everett Rogers’ (1962) S-curve and Gartner’s much hyped hype-cycle. These and other models tell us the dissemination of technologies begin slowly among innovators and early adopters before reaching critical mass and then ultimately taken in by stubborn laggards as well.
Complicating matters, however, the models also tell us that, along the way, many applications of new technologies fail early, as they do not cross the chasm between innovators and early adopters or later because commercial maturing fails even after technologies have gained widespread adoption.
What tech trends are important in the near term?
As usual, SXSW provided ample insights on the state of major tech trends from Artificial Intelligence (AI) and voice recognition to blockchain and self-driving cars. Most of these trends will not unveil their full potential for years or even decades. However, many major trends also deeply affect news publishing in earlier stages of development, which provides challenges and opportunities for news publishers in the near term.
The state of AI: AI promises to change the world fundamentally by saving lives and enabling driverless cars (according to Mark Zuckerberg) or relegate humans to second-class citizens dominated by their robot overlords (according to Elon Musk). Even though we will have to wait some time to find out whether Zuckerberg or Musk is right, it is clear the early or narrow forms of AI based on machine learning are already here and affecting news publishing deeply.
Accordingly, while relatively few front-running news publishers such as The Washington Post are integrating machine learning in comment moderation and story generation, social and search platforms have already integrated the technology deeply in the algorithms directing the flows of content and users online.
The pessimistic consensus at SXSW (amoung publishers and otherwise optimistic futurists alike) was that the current state of development machine learning is giving rise to is artificial stupidity rather than intelligence. This is because algorithms are optimised toward too simple effect indicators and trained on limited (and sometimes biased) data sets.
The result is that filter bubbles are reinforced, users are led to increasingly extreme content, and the spread of harmful content (such as fake news) is amplified.
The state of voice interfaces: At SXSW, futurists such as Amy Webb from the Future Today Institute diagnosed the emergence of voice interfaces as the beginning of the end of traditional smartphones. Whether this prediction will come true, voice interfaces of varying quality are already imbedded in many smart TVs, smartphones, and digital assistants offered by Amazon (Alexa), Apple (Siri), Google (Google Assistant), and Microsoft (Cortana) that have been widely adopted by users in the United States.
Publishers such as The Washington Post, Huffington Post, and Bloomberg began distributing and monetising audio news on Alexa in 2017, although commercial maturing still awaits. In Denmark, we are looking (nervously) forward to Amazon’s rumoured entry into the Scandinavian markets in 2018, when it will (perhaps) bring Alexa with them.
The state of natural language generation (NLG) and automated journalism: NLG in the widest sense involves an algorithm transformation of data points from a structured database into a readable text in the natural language. In the long term, NLG promises to transform journalism entirely and allow algorithmic platforms to sidestep traditional news producers entirely as sources for news content. The most advanced form of NLG, which turns structured data into a unique narrative, is still far off.
However, the most basic form of automated journalism that turns data into a single sentence has already been around for a long time in weather reports and bot-based live coverage of football games. The next level of natural language generation is template-based and includes the generation of full (albeit matter-of-fact style) articles at a low cost and in high quantity. It has been adopted by major news agencies and some news publishers and is spreading rapidly to new topic areas where structured data exist and demand for fact-focused news is high (such as business and sports news).
The state of Augmented Reality (AR): Unlike Virtual Reality (VR) or 360-degree video (VR’s primitive little brother), AR builds layers on top of the existing reality in real time instead of creating something entirely new. These layers are made visible on a screen usually on a smartphone.
Publishers at SXSW agreed that, for AR to become pervasive, we need another wave of technical innovation realising the promise of the defunct Google Glass. However, news publishers such as Quartz, The Washington Post, and The New York Times are currently integrating experiments with AR either in their main news apps (Quartz and The Washington Post) or via standalone AR-apps (The New York Times).
Accordingly, they are building capabilities for what Webb designated as the area of mixed reality technologies, which offer the greatest market potential for news organisations in the near future.
So, what does that all mean?
Change is a fundamental premise for news publishing, and it will continue to be so in the decades to come. Consequently, we are forced to continuously balance operational excellence with the need to make timely strategic investments in the future while under a significant cloud of uncertainty.
Simplifying matters, we can choose between three reactions to an emerging technology:
- We can wait and see.
- We can build capabilities and experiment.
- Or, finally, we can act decisively to integrate emerging technologies into our core business.
Most of the tech trends discussed above have developed to a state where we should begin building capabilities and experimenting to enable decisive action in the future.