4 upcoming tech trends we can implement in newsrooms right now (drones not included)

amy_webbEditor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of reports from five Digital First Media journalists who attended ONA13 through the Digital First Represents program.

I thought Amy Webb’s “10 Tech Trends for Journalists“ was one of the most fascinating (and entertaining) of the ONA 13 conference (see the slides and video).

From a demo of MindMeld anticipatory computing to a live drone flight it was an exciting glimpse at the future by the digital futurist. But I left the session thinking, how could this possibly relate to my newsroom right now? We’re barely keeping up with today’s technology, and now we’re supposed to be using Google Glass, talking to virtual personal assistants and learning how to fly drones? I decided to pick four topics, explore them a little more and think of some ways our resources could be applied toward these future trends.

Trend 1: Smart virtual personal assistants (SVPAs)

The second trend Webb talked about was “smart virtual personal assistants” like Donna, Osito, Tempo and Cue. Basically, these apps scrape the calendars, contacts lists, social media and email on your phone and combine that data with real-time weather and traffic information to help organize your day. Webb said SVPAs have become a $400 million market(!) in the past 12 months.

Screenshot of Donna app. Where is the El Paso Times' info on Election Day?

Screenshot of Donna app. Where is the El Paso Times’ info on Election Day?

How can news organizations get into the action? This got me thinking. How does news consumption fit into a person’s daily habits? Here is a very rough estimation of a local person’s routine in El Paso, Tex.

Morning:

  • Skim headlines to see if anything big happened overnight and to see what will happen today.
  • Check the weather so I know how to dress for the day.
  • Listen to the radio to learn about any traffic accidents or closures that I should avoid on my commute to work.

At work:

  • Possibly do some research on elpasotimes.com if my job involves local people and businesses.
  • If I travel for work, I need continued updates on traffic and weather.
  • If breaking news happens during the day, I want to be alerted to it and will follow updates from my phone.
  • May make plans for evening and weekend activities. Look up information on events, restaurants and venues.
  • Will check for more traffic and weather updates before leaving the office.

Evening:

  • Scan the headlines from the day. May spend some time reading longer features or watching short videos online before bed.
  • May take a look at my schedule for tomorrow or later in the week.

What if we got our news from SVPAs?
It seems like SVPAs (at least the ones I looked at) don’t account for news at this point, which seems like an unfortunate gap (or a great opportunity). What would an SVPA look like if it incorporated content from your local news organization? Take a short trip with me into the future:

In addition to my scheduled events, contacts and social media, the SVPA could include helpful nuggets of “news I can use.” In the morning, I would get the latest traffic and weather information and a short news briefing (in text or audio form, depending on my preference).

In the event of breaking news, I’d get an alert and short updates on how this developing story may affect me. How do I avoid the traffic mess caused by an accident or crime scene? When do I pick up my child in a lockdown situation? Such an app could also link me directly to the El Paso TImes’ social media channels.

Our news and event calendars would also be a great asset for an SVPA. If I’m reading about an event on elpasotimes.com or on our mobile app, I could save it to my calendar so all the info about the event would automatically populate in the SVPA. Or I could program it to include a series of events, like all UTEP football home games, or all El Paso Symphony Orchestra concerts. Besides the basic “if you go” information, the event information could include links to related articles, such as game UTEP game previews, or a review of a play I’m going to.

The personalization of these apps make them ideal tools to send me articles I really want to read. Is there a local news topic I’m continually interested in? Is there news about my neighborhood? The app could personally deliver these articles right to my phone as soon as they are available.

Obviously, a lot of work would need to go into restructuring the data of our content and calendars to communicate with such an app. But something like this would definitely make local news a more integrated part of a person’s day, giving them personalized information as they need it, when they want it.

Trend 2: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)

This trend surprised me at first, but after a few slides the connection to journalists seemed obvious to me.

There is typically a low barrier to entry for MOOCs and many are offered for free and with no commitment to continue. Webb called this trend “snackable” learning. She said Millennials are particularly fond of MOOCs and referred to them as “addictive.”

Some examples of MOOCs are Khan Academy (math and science courses offered free online, with partnerships from some organizations, Curious.com (how-to videos on a variety of subjects, some offered for free) and General Assembly (courses in web development, business fundamentals, product management, etc.). Webb seemed to think there was a good opportunity for partnership with MOOCs like these.

One of Webb’s key points was that a MOOC leverages something you are doing anyway, but packages it in a different way. I think she’s right — it’s time for us to get creative about packaging the content we are producing. I also think it would be great to leverage our newsroom’s talents and interests in a way other than having them write a blog or column.

These are the five types of MOOCs for newsrooms that Webb suggests:

  • Breaking news analysis cheat sheet
  • Authentic how-to video
  • 1-minute explainer video
  • Staff round up
  • Quiz

Here are a few ideas I had for each of those that I think readers might be interested in. These are localized to El Paso, but could easily be adapted to any locale:

Breaking news analysis cheat sheets (see The Washington Post’s great 9 things about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask)

  • Explaining the Mexican drug war
  • A quick history of El Paso
  • School cheating investigations in El Paso County

How-to videos

  • How to make pumpkin tortilla soup
  • How to plant a vegetable garden in the desert

We can also produce how-to videos that help readers contribute their own content

  • How to write an obituary
  • How to write a classified ad that will get noticed
  • How to record a professional looking video with your smartphone

1-minute explainer video

  • The building of El Paso’s new baseball stadium
  • How did the Asarco smokestacks get demolished?
  • Why is global climate change happening?

Staff roundup

  • Book of the month by a local author from our book page editor
  • 5 can’t miss things to do in El Paso this weekend from our entertainment editor
  • 5 best sports tweets this week

Quiz

  • What happened in El Paso this week? 10-question quiz
  • How well do you know El Paso? 100-question quiz with prizes

Beyond those, it would be interesting to explore a long-form course on a subject of interest to our readers that would keep them coming back, week after week, familiarizing them with our newsroom. For example, we could do a 10-part El Paso history series with our staff librarian. 

Trend 3: Comments

Webb also had some interesting things to say about the future of reader comments on news sites. She says, as they exist today, comments are not adding value to our product and are a distraction, and gave some horrifying examples to prove her point.

To remedy this, she suggested that news organizations create comment systems that are similar to a cocktail party — only include comments from people that I know or “find fascinating,” with the ability to invite others into the conversation.

My colleague Lucas and I had a discussion about this after the talk. He said, “Wouldn’t it get boring after awhile, to hear the same old voices in the comment forum?” I disagreed, thinking commenting on our site could benefit from some curation. Friends and “top commenters” could move to the top, with all others after that. Our conversation was a reminder that different people want different things from comments, and it’s hard to make one system that fits them all.

I checked out a few of the sites that Webb mentioned to see what the cutting edge of commenting technology looks like. Gawker makes you create a Kinja account (and therefore, a blog) in order for you to comment. They also inform you when the author of the article is participating (a great idea, I thought). Quartz allows you to annotate in the margins of an article. I was impressed at the look of it, though I wonder if it is too much work for the average reader to click on each paragraph rather than just see all the comments at one glance. New York Times has three comment views – All, Reader Picks and NYT picks. Though not in Webb’s presentation, I also took a look at Huffington Post, where a “Community Pundits” comment appears at the top of the comments section. After that you can choose between Highlighted, Most Recent, Oldest and Most Faved comment views.

My dream comment looks like this (click photo to enlarge):
comment_system

 

  • You must sign in, preferably with a social media account tied to your real name. No anonymous commenting.
  • Readers can comment anywhere in the article, including at the end if they want to write something long.
  • Readers would have the option to view comments, or not, through options on a floating toolbar on the side of the page. (I’m envisioning something like VH1’s old Pop Up Videos as what the comments might look like.)
  • Comments from my friends on social media, most popular commenters and the author of the post are color-coded and you could choose to view only those comments if you wish.
  • A sophisticated algorithm sorts all this out and a real person does not make a full-time job out of filtering comments.

I know, it’s a lot to ask. I think comment forums are one of the trickiest aspects of our site to manage. How do we encourage comments that are fun and insightful that will enhance readers’ engagement with our content? On the other hand, how do we make it so that comments are not a distraction from the content itself? And how do we keep all those trolls away? It’s a delicate balance and I think more experimentation is a great trend.

Zack Harold recently wrote about how to deal with online trolls from a different ONA13 session.

Trend 4: Data

Webb says 2014 is the year data goes completely mainstream. She said everyone in the newsroom needs to get experience with data, now.

Unfortunately she didn’t get to spend too much time on this. But she is right.

Data was a HUGE topic at ONA13. Here are some of the sessions that focused on data:

And let’s not forget that the ONA13 keynote was delivered by Nate Silver of fivethirtyeight.com.

So, what needs to happen for newsrooms to fully embrace data journalism?

As I see it, there are two different classes of people in a newsroom and both of them need help:

First, we need to bring people who don’t usually deal with data visualization into the fold and get them to think in a “data” mindset. We need to fundamentally rewire the way journalists think about their stories. Data is an integral way of telling a story, especially in a digital format. Many journalists still aren’t getting it.

But I would argue that the most skilled of the data journalists in smaller newsrooms face a whole slew of problems, too. How many of us are trained statisticians? How do we know how to “clean” data and interpret it correctly? How many of us are experienced at coding? One of the biggest obstacles we face is that we lack the manpower to take on big projects. DFM’s data team is a great idea in this respect. They provide professional help for the more ambitious projects we want to take on.

It’s been an interesting journey digging into just a few technology trends that Webb identified in her crystal ball (I’m still pondering Google Glass and drones). Webb is someone I’m definitely going to keep an eye on in the next few years (on Twitter @WebbMedia). Who can say which of her trends will end up being “the next big thing” but we’re sure to hear more about everything she talked about.

The unknown can be scary but I’m also excited about the possibilities for the future of journalism.

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