REVIEW 

Can technology solve publishing’s problems? Or will it make them worse?

Web Summit in Lisbon is the biggest tech conference on the planet, with numerous tech CEOs as speakers, over a thousand start-ups, and 70,000 attendees, one of whom was Carolyn Morgan. She went along to hear about the latest tech trends and to try and figure out what they might mean for publishers.

By Carolyn Morgan

Can technology solve publishing’s problems? Or will it make them worse?

It can be overwhelming just walking through the halls in company with all the young, international, ambitious tech geeks and entrepreneurs, catching glimpses of pitches in process and screens in demo mode. I certainly got the feeling that these were the people who would drive relentless disruption and push past boundaries in every industry.

So, should the publishing and media industry be afraid of technology, or might there be some developments which could help solve current problems?

In this article, I aim to brief you on the big trends in tech to watch for, discuss what media can learn from the tech industry and explore how tech might solve (or worsen) some current media dilemmas.

BIG TRENDS IN TECHNOLOGY

What are the main technology trends that could affect media in the near to mid future?

1. Natural computing interfaces

How humans interact with computers is shifting towards more “natural” methods, making it easier and more intuitive for the human to get the outcome they want. Voice and language recognition is evolving rapidly. Mozilla is developing an open source voice database to train AIs to recognise different languages and accents. ElliQ is a voice enabled home assistant specially designed for seniors. And The Guardian has announced a joint project, Voice Lab, with Google to develop audio-based news content for smart speakers.

Visual search is also evolving rapidly: Google Lens makes it easy to search objects viewed through a phone camera. The Microsoft Face API can recognise faces, match them to similar faces on a database and even detect emotions. Pinterest can analyse the pictures a user pins to provide better quality suggestions.

Gesture control, first pioneered by the Nintendo Wii in 2006, is finding more applications in the creative industries. Penrose, who develop virtual reality environments for games and movies, enable their VR creators to literally paint scenes in the air using gestures and special handsets. And precocious teen entrepreneurs like Ananya are experimenting with using brain control to make remote objects move.

2. Augmented reality

More accessible than virtual reality, which requires a headset, augmented reality (AR) allows users to view real world objects through their phone and see added graphic explanations and animations. Companies like Blippar use AR to add interaction to posters and magazine covers, provide reviews and extra information on merchandise in retailers, and navigational tips to landscapes, cities and airports. Broadcasters use it to caption and explain sports events or news stories. There will be multiple applications in medicine, transport and travel.

3. Artificial intelligence and machine learning

One of the best explanations of how to use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning was from Cassie Kozyrov, chief decision scientist at Google. An AI (or algorithm) needs to be trained with examples and data, and the quality of its output measured. The risk is that the humans who built and trained the AI may have introduced their own bias. AI is being used in many environments, from spotting cybersecurity risks to writing simple articles at the Washington Post to finding up and coming music artists online and creating playlists for A&R talent scouts (weareinstrumental.com). And voice driven assistants like Alexa and ElliQ are becoming smarter, learning over time about their human users’ behaviour and making relevant suggestions. Robotics developers are exploring how AI can spot patterns in language and write more creatively.

Many people are anxious about the impact of AI on human employment, with the likelihood of clerical jobs in sectors like legal and customer service being replaced with technology. However, the effect might be less significant in more “creative” roles.

4. Blockchain

The most visible application of blockchain is cryptocurrencies, which to most consumers feel like a speculative bubble with dubious links to crime and drugs. But, meanwhile, many industries are exploring distributed ledger technology to provide a better audit trail in a supply chain. Open Music is an open source initiative to allow music rights holders and creators to identify ownership (and track who should be paid). Civil is trying to establish a direct connection between journalists and readers – though their journey has been challenging so far.

WHAT MEDIA CAN LEARN FROM TECH INDUSTRY

Tech businesses are starting to buy up media brands, like the Washington Post. But media businesses don’t always need a change in ownership to steal some ideas from the tech world.

1. Product development

Since most new product development in media involves digital technology, there’s much that we can learn from tech start-up culture. It starts with a clear understanding of the customer’s problem, and a willingness to experiment with different features and respond to user feedback. The CEO of Slack, one of the fastest growing enterprise platforms, explained that they developed the product first for their own virtual team. They refined the experience after spending time watching users at work. The hardest task, they believe, is to persuade users to break old habits and establish new ones. A useful lesson for B2B media owners developing workflow products.

2. Data

In a creatively driven culture like Condé Nast, there could easily be resistance to the use of mass analytics data to drive content decisions. Their chief data officer, Karthic Bala, emphasised the importance of finding a common language with creative teams, and choosing a widely understood metric: the revenue generated from advertising linked to content. Data on user behaviour was consolidated in one place, and new dashboards designed to be highly visual and intuitive to use. They have focused on creating a content recommendation engine that is personalised according to an individual user’s browsing history. An impressive example was using visual tagging to identify key elements of dresses in a video of a catwalk show, and present users with related links to other videos showing similarly styled outfits.

3. Borrowing ideas from other sectors

Tech start-ups are relaxed about taking ideas from one sector to another. Media organisations need to be equally catholic in their inspiration. Retailers have long used graph databases that look at connections (such as neo4j) to power product recommendations. Publishers could borrow this idea to power content recommendations or perhaps to understand connections within a reader community.

4. Business models

Tech start-ups are focused on spotting markets with high value transactions and too much friction or limited information. They are open minded about which party pays for the service, and frequently experiment with different business models.

COULD TECH SOLVE KEY ISSUES FOR MEDIA?

Media is facing several existential challenges, some driven by the growth of digital technology. Could tech help to solve these dilemmas, or might it simply make things worse?

1. Trust in media

The big platforms, especially Facebook, have rewarded popularity and virality over quality of content, causing many consumers to feel mistrustful of all shared content. And algorithms have tended to reinforce consumers’ biases, pushing them more of the same content at the cost of alternative viewpoints. There is much talk about how established media brands can “prove” their authenticity. In Mexico, AJ Plus built a service called “verificado” during the 2018 elections where consumers could send in dubious WhatsApp video chains, and the editorial team would fact check and deliver a verdict on whether they were true or not. Others have suggested that blockchain could provide an undisputed trail of the provenance of news stories. Ultimately, a shift from advertising business models, which reward popularity, to subscription models, which reward quality and more engaged audiences, could be the answer.

2. Funding quality journalism

The news media’s experiment with free access ad-funded digital content has not proved viable long term. But hard paywalls limit the reach of articles to a smaller audience. Ev Williams, co-founder of Twitter, and founder of Medium, believes that an element of free views allows the paying audience to subsidise more casual readers. The Guardian now receives 12% of its revenues from one million individual donors, some on a regular basis, others as one-off contributions. All content is free at the point of use, but they have spent time refining the “ask” for donations for different content types and audiences. There is a strong level of support from the US, where there is more of a tradition of media being funded philanthropically.

3. Independent creators

The growth of “influencers” and other independent content creators is a potential long-term concern for traditional media organisations. Partly as advertising spend is being diverted from media brands to individual influencers, and also because audiences are spending more time consuming independent content on social platforms. The challenge for publishers is finding ways to collaborate with influencers and freelance content creators while keeping them under the umbrella of the media brand.

4. Working with brands

Digital display advertising revenues are dwindling, and with Google, Facebook and now Amazon hoovering up mobile digital adspend, media owners have to develop new ways to work with advertisers. Branded content is now more of an established discipline, although even pioneers like the New York Times admit the challenge of treading the fine line between authenticity and a sales pitch. But media owners have a few cards in their hand: a deep understanding of their audience, which can be enhanced by clever data analysis, and an expertise in storytelling, which neuroscientists now agree is the key to generating an emotional response to a message and making it memorable.

So, the disruption caused by technology isn’t going to end; indeed, it may well accelerate as computing power grows and more bright young things invest their energy in tech start-ups. But by monitoring the trends, media owners can learn some new processes from the tech sector, and adopt new disciplines such as AI, natural language, visual search, data science, and AR into their business. Fasten your seat belts, there may be turbulence ahead…

See many of the Web Summit talks on YouTube here.