The roster of potential future platforms for news media reads like a sure-hit Christmas shopping list for excited kids and technophiles — smart speakers, ultra-fast 5G mobile, Mixed Reality (formerly called Augmented Reality), audio of many kinds, and Artificial Intelligence. 

Whether to buy now or hold off until the toys develop a bit more is the tricky part, acknowledged a what’s-next panel at INMA’s World Congress of News Media. But clearly, the product development folks at The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and National Public Radio aren’t waiting.

 

Kimberly Lau of The Atlantic Digital, Joey Marburger of The Washington Post, and Joel Sucherman of NPR discuss mobile initiatives beyond the smartphone.
Kimberly Lau of The Atlantic Digital, Joey Marburger of The Washington Post, and Joel Sucherman of NPR discuss mobile initiatives beyond the smartphone.

Asked whether the motivation to branch out from core products is an effort to shift audiences to news platforms or to find new audiences, Kimberly Lau, vice president and general manager at The Atlantic Digital, said it’s really both.

“It’s about trying to deliver more content to your core, the people that will follow you wherever you go,” Lau said. “And it’s also about finding those audiences that are doing new things. On the smart speakers for instance, for me, I look at my young children who, you know, are growing up thinking that every speaker will talk back to them.

“It’s a totally different world. And so while it may not be there absolutely today, it’s something that we will have to be there in the coming years or else we will be irrelevant.”

The Atlantic has become particularly invested in producing audio articles and podcasts, even branded podcasts, so as to have content available where Lau said an increasing number of people are listening for it.

“There is actually a real appetite for people listening to a 15,000-word article. We’ve been doing this on sort of a provisional basis for the past year. Right now we’ve been doing about eight stories a month. We’re in talks right now, in planning, to significantly increase that in the coming months.”

Joey Marburger, director of product at The Washington Post, justified the exploration of new platforms with S-curve charts showing mobile phones now reaching a maturity and saturation point comparable to the personal computer in 2005, when that market started leveling out in terms of consumer adoption.

“There are these periods kind of in between S-curves like this where you think: What’s next? What’s emerging? Everything kind of feels old or the same. There are a lot of copy cat apps. You know, the most recent iPhone is like the previous iPhone. There’s always something else coming.”

At the top of Marburger’s Christmas list is fifth-generation or 5G networks that will connect our mobile devices to whatever we want on them up to 10 times faster than any of today’s services.

“5G is going to open up all sorts of new experiences,” he said. “There are two components with it. One is that handsets will get much, much faster. The other is that it’s ultra-reliable networking, so like for autonomous cars and things like that, because an autonomous car can’t wait for like a bad signal if it needs to know if it should go through a stop sign or not.

“So that’s coming. In 2019, you’ll see a first test. In 2020, it will start to expand to bigger cities. And before you know it, there will probably be a billion more connected devices, due to 5G.”

Joel Sucherman, senior director of digital products at NPR, sees this as an extremely fortuitous time for a media organisation like his that was originally built on radio. Radio might be disappearing as a device, but he says the radio experience has been reborn with the Amazon Echo, Google Home, and Apple HomePod.

And they’re apparently popular.

Some 20% of homes in the United State already have smart speakers. And more significantly, Sucherman said, they are being adopted at a faster rate than smartphones at the same point in that technology’s rise to the dominance it has today.

“People are not buying these things and just sitting them on their counters and forgetting them,” Sucherman said. “They’re actually using them! ...They’re changing behaviors, forming new habits.”

It’s just that what those habits are, or will be, is still a bit fluid. People are playing music, looking for weather, listening to audio programs, besides using the various built-in assistants to ask questions.

“Every new technology, whether it’s putting newspapers on a Web site or, going back in time, making radio dramas, turning them into television shows — every new technology takes the old technology, puts it on the new one, and then figures out what it’s good at.”