Newsgeist Europe 2015 – journalists and technology trying to mingle

This year, Google organized a European version of Newgeist, an invite-only event for media regarding technology. The event was organized as an unconference, which means participants decided the topics in focus and there was a lot of freedom in this perspective. I’m not good with ”Who is who in media industry”, but participants included journalists, editors and CTOs from media houses like Guardian, Die Welle, BCC, Spiegel, YLE and Helsingin Sanomat, some academics, technology startups and Google people. So, rather good media organizations, and also places with experience from digital transformation. I was lucky to get invited thanks to my professor’s active involvement.

Organization silos in media companies

I attended several sessions which highlighted the existence of organizational setups in news organizations. I was surprised to hear how fragmented they were and what kind of day-to-day challenges emerge from this. For example, a social media desk may be responsible for editing social media publishing, but content comes from other departments. This causes some friction on e.g. interaction through social media, as the journalists managing that site are not the creator of the piece.

Secondly, the technology platforms have traditionally been separated from the journalistic content. As we’re seeing more and more interactive applications and multimedia being used for journalism, this is the challenge. We had a lovely discussion in the group on “Should media companies become tech houses” around this, and how some forerunning organizations now try to break these silos and connect the technology department with the content creation department.

They are even (and this was a big thing for them) creating co-working spaces. As an outsider, it was hard for me to understand why the work is organized in this way. Especially as it seemed these silos and management structures caused unnecessarily stiffness in the daily business life. It seemed that there, however, was general interest to break out of these and enable more interdisciplinary work, and it was seen useful. Was the problem to change the organizations to support these new ways to work?

Where is social?

As Google was the main organizer, there weren’t any major social players present in the event. However, social media is so important there must be a session on that. The focus here was sharing experiences in organizations regarding user engagement and how to measure these aspects.

Again the discussion on organizational silos came into the picture. Different news organizations weighted the value of social engagement differently; in some cases the journalists directly responded to feedback, where is in other organizations they were the entry-level guys. A consensus in this group (of lead-uses) was that the social interaction should be handled by senior enough person to make him a position of authority internally and externally. The other interest in social related to tricks of the trade; mainly around the theme of how to optimize content for social media. It seemed that there were some genuine efforts to experiment these out and collect data.

We also discussed online comments in the news. It seemed that most people had lost their hope regarding the value of these comments, and some brave ones had disabled the commenting already; others change it to polls. However, once the commenting sections have been out, readers expect to see there. And if they are not, there’s all sort of noises made e.g. regarding freedom of speech. We also had one session about computational or data journalism. With a lot of participants but less of contributions. The topic is interesting, but we didn’t have that many people who actually did those things. Thus, rather lame discussion

To conclude…

What’s most surprising to me was the experience of technology being external to these people. Mostly something that someone else does and should not intervene with their traditional work; creation of content. The steps taken to integrate these in some news organizations were interesting but not the norm.

I raised the question if media houses are technology companies also; the consensus seemed to be they are not – they aren’t selling technology. But looking some of the most successful technology companies now, they aren’t selling technology; they are building platforms. There was also discussion what it means to be a technology company, how should they act and what makes an organization a technology house. For example, BuzzFeed was mentioned as an example of content creation, but at the same time they do top-notch data analytics and mixing this into the content creation. I’m not sure what I meant with the technology company, but many of my personal notes from the discussions marked that is their practices in the software industry media houses should really check out; such as multidisciplinary teams and breaking departments.

My second highlight related to the failures of academia to communicate results of our work. For example, online commenting research has been published on forums like CSCW and New Media & Society – high-value research venues. Still, their observations clearly didn’t affect the everyday work in these organizations; sadly so. I’m now thinking this from my perspective, how should I in the future communicate my results directly to the relevant companies and how to make the outcomes easy to understand and short.

Cross-posted from my personal blog, Science & Industry.

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