Three Qs on the future of online media

Media , Tech

I often ruminate on the future of media and how its intersection with technology has forever altered our society’s trajectory. But rarely do I capture these thoughts in any meaningful way. Since that is exactly the reason I started this blog in first place, I thought I would post them here.

These questions come from UMD student Angela Wong. I had the pleasure of meeting her at one of the recent ONADC events. She wrote me to ask my opinion on some of the big picture questions the media industry faces today. Angela is applying for the AP-Google Journalism and Technology Scholarship and asked me these questions about the convergance of journalism and technology I mentioned:

  • What have been the biggest disruptors so far?
  • What are the latest trends digital journalists and developers are following?
  • What skills will digital journalists and developers need in the future?

All great ideas worth pondering. Thankfully, the holiday gave me a little time to spend fleshing out some answers. Here is what I wrote to Angela.

What have been the biggest disruptors so far?

Speed of change.

When you look back at the last 20 some years of digital media consumption, one can clearly see that Moore’s law is a pretty good barometer to see how rapidly the landscape driven by technology shifts. This compounding acceleration makes it difficult to predict, let alone keep up with, where audiences will flock. We are now faced with an ever expanding index of connected devices allowing media consumption under an increasingly complex variety of conditions. And with those eyeballs, goes both the media business model and the core purpose of distributing information to the general population.

At NPR, we see triple digit year over year growth for many of our platforms. But most organizations simply aren’t set up to accommodate that kind of change. In my opinion, the ones who will survive this future will be the companies who embrace the need to evolve as critical from the leadership at the top, down the day to day level, and everywhere in between. Because none of us can actually tell you what will come next, so we need to be ready for anything.

What are the latest trends digital journalists and developers are following?

Two that resonate for me are building platforms and improving efficiency. Those two ideas might seem disperate, but I would argue they are intertwined. Digital media groups are looking for ways to build systems out of media content. For NPR, this means following Daniel Jacobson’s idea of COPE (Create Once Publish Everywhere). This strategy was responsible for our team investing heavily in an effective content management system, a full suite of APIs baked into this system, which in turn allowed us to develop and deploy new clients (such as our iOS applications) rapidly. Because of this underlying infrastructure, we are able to act more as a cohesive platform instead of dissonate groups moving towards seemingly mutually exclusive goals. Another way to think about this is idea is that when all of our work overlaps, we care much more about what happens in every corner of the building and that prevents most teams for working in the isolation of the proverbial back-room closet.

Efficiency inherently follows behind this idea of interconnectedness. There are many sayings we use at NPR like “eat your own dog food” and “punch above your weight.” But these metaphors serve to express that we need to be much more streamlined than media in years past. For every new platforms that emerges, we don’t want to reinvent the entire presentation layer of our content. We simply cannot maintain at that pace. Our group is specifically looking at the next generation of technologies underneath the web, loosely identified as HTML5, as a route to help us achieve more with less. One technique we are particularly interested in is called “Responsive Web Design.” This methodology was first articulated by Ethan Marcotte and has since been applied to sites like the bostonglobe.com. That is the type of trend we want to watch.

What skills will digital journalists and developers need in the future?

For me, anyone who has built a project online understands that it is almost always a team effort. I myself am a big fan of sports metaphors, despite cries of being cliche, as I feel they are effective. Take any team sport, say football, as it is Thanksgiving. Each player who walks onto the field has a specific role and has been cast his part based on the attributes he possesses. Perhaps he is lightning fast or is Herculean in strength. Is it great if individuals understand more skill sets than they utilize at a professional level? Absolutely. A germane example might be this clip from the NFL last year where New England Patriot Dan Connoly ran a kick return back 71 yards. One might expect this to be fairly regular occurrence and you would be right. But what you might not expect is this run to come from a 300 pound offensive lineman.

Did the team cast him as a full-time kick returner after this? No, they primarily needed Dan for his skills as a blocker. But was his secondary ability to run extremely well in any way a hinderance to the team? I think not. And his teammates didn’t attempt to stop the play and tell Dan he couldn’t run this one back. On the contrary, you see them blocking for him and exalt him for his fantastic and unexpected play.

Few individuals are capable of mastering all aspects of a complex game such as football at the highest level. Yet, this is the discussion I’ve heard for several years now in academic journalism circles. That we should all be master storytellers, an army of one production crew, business entrepreneurs, and code ninjas just to name a few. To me, that isn’t a archetype capable of sustaining an industry as large, complex and diverse as the media.

So, when I look at what skills people who produce content online will need in the future, I think the conversion is more about individuals finding a focus, yet knowing enough about other’s abilities to be empathetic towards one another. Follow your natural skills and supplement them with secondary and even tertiary ability. If you are a great photographer, you don’t need to be Hemingway. But it doesn’t hurt to sharpen your writing either. If you are a developer, learn some more about narrative techniques. The one thing that hurts us is when someone says I don’t do that or I’m not a blank. That refusal to me seems utterly selfish.

Another way to frame this conversation is how can I best contribute to my team? When I showed up at NPR, many of the skills I now possess were pretty rough. And some where non-existant. I was much stronger in video production, for example, than technology. But I was passionate and willing to expand my horizons. Yet, having a background rooted in journalism makes it much easier for me to translate between the editors and producers and the developers and executives.

To me, the future isn’t in any particular set of skills or abilities, but rather in setting ourselves up to be ready for the right opportunities where we can make a difference. Doesn’t matter if you are a developer or a journalist. Don’t get stuck knowing only one to think; be a life long learner. We must be ready to evolve as our industry does. Another clip this brings to mind is the bronze age orientation day which if you haven’t seen should give you a good laugh.

Thus I think the more talented, passionate, and intelligent people in our industry who are ready to contribute in whatever way they can, the more likely we are to succeed in the future. And likewise, the more we struggle to hold on to what we already know is obsolete, the more ridgid and inflexible we become, the more we set ourselves up for failure. But if we can be agile and adapt, then when opportunity calls, when the ball shows up in our hands, we are ready to make the most of it – like Dan Connoly. And I think that’s a good situation to be in.