What Could Tech Actually Do for Journalism

Last week, along with my colleague Yvonne, I gave a talk at the Berkman Klein Center fellows hour (which is actually two hours, don’t ask) summarizing how newspapers made money, how born-digital news organizations do today, and getting the group to help brainstorm about how to fund a BBC Media Action project.  That led to more conversation about what tech companies could do if they really wanted to help journalism.  Not surprisingly, I focused on how they could make the business model even a touch more durable.

A few of these, below:

  • Selling news just as we do any other good/service
    • As digital news organizations are increasingly focused on a single vertical, interest-based advertising might be able to help them grow audience, which can then be monetized directly or indirectly
    • My currently-running experiment is testing ROI on using targeted advertising to grow newsletter subscribers, who will then be solicited for donations
    • Tech companies are great at optimizing advertising for returns; great at matching people who want something with people who make/sell/write about/have it… So what if we ran these kind of experiments at scale?
      • What if there was an advertising product for publishers to hawk themselves to grow their audiences?
  • Measuring what people actually learned from the news they consumed
    • Using a combination of analytics, survey delivery tools, the science of public knowledge testing, and the propensity score matching technique, we can measure how much people learned about a topic, not just if they clicked on a story
    • My previous work at both Northwestern and USC shows this is actually possible — it’s just too labor intensive for most news organizations…
      • That sounds like a job for software!
    • Further, once we have a metric, we can optimize against it… this is again something that tech companies have unique skills because the testing and optimization can happen at Web scale
  • Building productivity tools to let journalists be journalists, not technologists
    • Huge amounts of the total costs borne by news organizations are either paying technologists or large inefficiencies in under skilled employees trying to work with technology
    • Many run on tools developed way before the Internet was a part of everyday life, for which digital output is an afterthought
    • Many born-digital organizations run on G-Suite (SaaS)… And others have already proven that newsroom workflow tools can be a business unto themselves

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