Software is Eating the News: The New York Times 2020 report

Hats off to the New York Times for both creating and sharing the “Journalism That Stands Apart” report.

It’s great step forward, but it fails to fundamentally refocus the Times from being a content-generating publisher into a public-service solutions/IT organization that helps our nation and world make better decisions, create stronger communities and collaborate more effectively.

The report still felt very constrained by both:

  • The NY Times content-centric mission
  • And the technological, organizational and business-model constraints of the printing press-era which are defined by:
  1. One-way communication platforms that require experts manning expensive equipment to create and distribute content.
  2. Limited space, personalization and sharing.
  3. Non-existent search, linking or ability to take action within the platform.

The end result is that the report, while moving the Times forward, fails to move the Times and journalism into the software/Internet era and expand their overall opportunity space.

As a former reporter and editor who has spent the last twenty years developing Web applications, go-to-market and business models for startups and Fortune 100 companies, the report fails to acknowledge and embrace the fact that the New York Times is fundamentally a solutions and information-technology organization with a public-service mission.

So while recognizing the obvious, it fails to address some of the root causes afflicting it and the industry.

After having been through many legacy technology and business-model transitions, what I’ve learned is that we are trapped by our past experiences. We apply our historical learnings, right or wrong, to the new technology, from a technical, organizational and financial perspective without really understanding the opportunities, limitations and implications that the new world brings.

Unfortunately, until news organizations and journalists embrace the fact that they are in the solutions and technology business, albeit competing primarily with outmoded technologies and constructs, they will struggle.

So over the next few weeks I’ll be using my community journalism and software product management experience to provide my critique of the report and how news organizations can avoid getting eaten in the software and Internet era.

Today we’ll start with item #1 from the 2020 report:

It’s not about becoming more visual, it’s about helping people make better decisions more easily!

Graphics and visuals are just one small part of that goal. The Times and journalism in general needs to break free of the article format and instead focus on the best ways to help your audience make decisions.

Sometimes that will involve writing an article, using graphics or even video, or sometimes it will involve delivering software to provide interactive and personalized insights for users to find their own answers.

Unfortunately, since journalism is defined as writing, the news world revolves around the article, and everything else is an appendage to it. However, articles, while great for sharing high-level concepts and evoking emotions, are not currently personalized and fail when the story gets too complex, i.e. involves too many people, facts and figures.

The fundamental problem is how the brain functions. It has three types of memory:

  1. Iconic Memory: Where sights, sounds and other senses are first processed. Information stays in here for less than a second, but our mind is able to identify certain items instantaneously, even before our conscious mind is aware of them, e.g. length, movement, color, etc..
  2. Working Memory: The brain’s RAM. Unfortunately we humans can only hold small amounts of information in our working memory, e.g. names, dates, etc.. so as we learn new facts, we either forget what we learned previously or we need to move the information into our long term memory, which takes a lot of effort.
  3. Long-Term Memory: Where we store our information for later use.

The key takeaway is that our working memory only holds small amounts of information, so we need to design our information products in ways that make it easy for us to absorb and manage the content being presented, i.e. stories are great for communicating themes and conflict, but don’t work so well for delivering lots of facts and figures.

Once we have more than two or three protagonists, keeping track of who said what and did what to whom takes more work than people are willing to invest — and as a result leads to lower recall and a poorer user experience.

I highly recommend Stephen Few’s blog for more insights into the human brain and data visualization.

And while static visuals help, they still lack the interactivity and personalization capabilities modern software and people expect.

Provide civic intelligence & analytics tools to the public

One of the great white spaces and where news organizations have a real competitive advantage if they can rethink of themselves as solutions/IT organizations is to provide the tools and platforms to help people and communities make better decisions.

Many of us, including journalists, use business intelligence/analytics software within our business, but almost no one outside of TV meteorology departments provide it as a news/public-service offering on an ongoing basis. Data journalism, occasionally delivers public-facing products, but is primarily about building and massaging data sets for internal analysis, with the results being transformed into a static story and graphic for publication on the Web and paper.

As someone currently leading the development and rollout of customer-facing analytics tools for hundreds of thousands of users around the globe, this has always struck me as one of the great overlooked news opportunities.

It’s not just about providing a map about the planned subway routes, but using GIS/mapping capabilities to help people discover the various issues and opportunities with the different pathways for themselves, and how the decisions might impact them, their communities, businesses and friends.

It’s about allowing users to not just read a story about school tests scores and see a visual about the overall trends, it’s about users being able to see the trends for their specific schools and how they compare to years past and other schools. Articles, photos and videos help provide the context and bring people to life while the information application gives us the “facts” and numbers we need to make specific decisions.

Expanding the meteorology model beyond just the weather segment

News organizations already have an existing model in the weather business. The meteorologist helps provide context about what’s going on. And then the forecasting software gives us the maps and forecasts specific to us.

Imagine if instead of a meteorologist with the latest tools, we had general assignment reporters without the latest and greatest Doppler radar technology helping us make weather decisions.

Envision an early spring evening when you turn on the TV news to find out the details of a dangerous storm heading our way so to decide whether your family should take shelter in the closet or not — and instead of a meteorologist giving you detailed visual information about the storm track and intensity, reporters with no meteorological training were interviewing various “experts” about the storm.

“Yes, it’s going to be a dangerous storm,” exclaims expert one.

“Well it shouldn’t really be that bad unless you’re in the impacted areas,” explains expert two.

“There you have it, it will be a stormy night,” explains the reporter.

Instead, you have come to expect trained experts using advanced analysis/visualization tools showing you the intensity and storm track so you can make potentially life or death decisions.

Future of News: Experts using software to help their audiences make important decisions & ultimately providing those tools to personalize the information for themselves

Unfortunately, this model only exists in TV news weather departments and the Weather Channel, but it’s a model well worth exploring in order to provide more value and help people make better decisions more easily.

So while better visuals are important, providing better tools and trained experts to help people make better decisions more easily, is what people expect in the information age.

Dad. Husband. Cyclist. Undercover Chicano. Fortune 100 and Startup Veteran.