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Publishers should observe start-ups to predict future news innovations

By Ben Werdmuller


San Francisco


Journalism is central to democracy. It’s how we make decisions as citizens and gauge the effectiveness of our representatives. It’s how we learn about what’s happening beyond the borders of our communities. It’s how we plan our businesses and understand our place in the world.

And it’s under unprecedented threat.

The economic threats have been underway for some time. Even when publishers have successfully made the transition to the Internet, targeted display advertising encourages the frequent publishing of superficial content — “click-bait” — rather than considered, in-depth analysis.

Established media companies would be wise to observe how tech start-ups are disrupting the publishing industry.
Established media companies would be wise to observe how tech start-ups are disrupting the publishing industry.

In turn, this leads to an erosion of trust from audiences. It could even be argued that a lot of “fake news” is simply an optimised form of this kind of content, freed from a moral duty to report the facts.

The societal threats are newer. It should be rare for journalists to be declared enemies of the state in free societies, but it’s becoming increasingly more common. The erosion of trust means fewer people believe what’s being reported in the news. And empathy between people with different beliefs is in shorter and shorter supply.

In the midst of all this, technology is undergoing yet another paradigm shift. For US$45, anyone can have a device in his home that he can have a conversation with (and he can buy it at the local supermarket).

Soon, smartphones will have sophisticated Augmented Reality capabilities. Ambient computing — where the computer is all around you all the time, answering your questions and proactively delivering information in non-interruptive ways — is about to arrive.

In a world where media companies have really only just come to grips with the Web, how can newsrooms adapt yet again?

The answer may be they don’t need to — or at least, not straight away. Instead, a host of start-ups are emerging to take advantage of these emerging technologies. Teams of scrappy entrepreneurs are building new ways to create and access journalism that would be hard to develop in a traditional newsroom environment.

Start-ups like Purple, a messaging platform that allows journalists to build publishing businesses using personal messaging as a delivery mechanism. Hearken allows news organisations to listen to their audiences more effectively and create highly engaging, relevant content. And NewsDeeply provides in-depth, vertical news sites on underreported topics.

These products might not have been developed inside an existing media business. They turn existing models on their heads and contradict incumbent norms. Most importantly, they have the freedom to move in new directions and fail quickly, evolving their strategies as they test their hypotheses in weeks or days.

It’s a powerful model: By virtue of their status as fast-paced, emerging ventures, these teams are in the midst of paving the way for the future of journalism.

Rather than attempt to become Silicon Valley innovators, media companies can watch these start-ups, support them, and treat them as outboard laboratories. By forming allegiances, media companies can learn how to use these new technologies in ways that complement their businesses. In turn, the start-ups receive deeper access to, and an understanding of, institutional media.

It’s one of the reasons I’m excited to work for Matter: We get to find early-stage media start-ups helping to create a more informed, inclusive, and empathetic society. We support them through an in-person, 20-week accelerator programme, using design thinking to help them make decisions quickly by putting users at the centre of their activities. And we put them in direct dialog with our media partners, who simultaneously send intrapreneurial teams through a parallel design-thinking programme.

The future of journalistic media isn’t necessarily bite-sized content, or moving to video, or conversational, ambient apps. The future of online monetisation isn’t necessarily subscriptions or patronage. And the future of content isn’t necessarily in-depth, vertical, investigative reporting.

But it isn’t necessarily not those things. By embracing innovation at start-ups, media companies can protect their businesses while empowering the experimentation that will secure their future.

As technology evolves and pulls prevailing business models with it, one thing is certain not to change: We need journalism to uncover the facts, speak truth to power, and help us all be more informed citizens. Finding the models to protect this core component of democracy — financially, technologically, and societally — is incumbent of all of us.

About Ben Werdmuller

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