Trending Now: Old News is Dead
Today’s journalists in Silicon Valley are also techies and entrepreneurs
On a gloriously sunny and mild, February afternoon at Stanford University, leaders in journalism, app design, and investing gathered to usher in a dawning era of media, while somewhere else a bell was tolling for the end of the news business as we know it.
The panelists at the Stanford GSB’s conference on the Future of Media were the faces of a fractured industry attempting to reinvent itself in wake of old media’s precipitous decline. An expectant audience assembled to hear each person’s visions for what will become of traditional news, but as Zite’s CEO Mike Johnson said, “If you’re looking for a silver bullet, none of us have it.”
As one form of media comes down, there are many questions facing the next thing to take its place, but for this panel, the way to revive the news business is to put the “you” back in “user.” Coming from a background at PBS FRONTLINE Corey Ford, the CEO of Matter, says that journalists make the mistake of thinking that they are “above the fray, and [are] going to give people what they really need.” Sites like Zite and Circa are personalizing print news, but in diametrically different ways, bringing up important questions for how most people will receive information down the road. David Cohn, Circa’s founding editor, emphasizes that the news app is “100% human generated,” driven by a small editorial staff manually aggregating bits of breaking news from various sources into a single story. An algorithm may be easier to employ on a large scale, but Cohn says that he would “put any of [his] editors against an algorithm any day of the week.”
His commitment to human intelligence has a romanticized flavor of gristly editors always willing to take the fall for their writers that harkens back to the status quo of newsrooms, but there are some like Johnson, who believe that there are cases where machines can outperform people. “There are jobs we think humans could do really well, like choosing stories on a home page, that machines can do better,” Johnson says.
But whether a startup can derive the perfect algorithm or structure the most appealing iPad app, in the eyes of one of the remaining old school journalists on the panel, the question still remains, how do you pay for it? Adam Lashinksy, who covers Silicon Valley and Wall Street for FORTUNE technology, wants to let us all in on a “dirty little secret.” He says, “Facebook, Google, LinkedIn distract people from the fact that these innovative media companies don’t make a lot of money.” Even Cohn strongly believes that “journalism is not sustainable.” Advertising, on the other hand, is sustainable. “It just so happens that the two were intimately tied before,” says Cohn. Yet, recent backlash over Facebook and Instagram’s advertisement policies proves just how adverse users are to ads on sites and apps that they enjoy for free. Lashinsky thinks that people will pay for journalism, though what remains unclear is how many and how much. But if young sites and apps are looking to strike it big in a tech world where the most popular things come at no cost, what becomes the value of news?
It might be too early to tell whether new media will drive job growth for editors, programmers, or both, but all present agreed that what has driven a stake into traditional forms of reporting, is just that, a grounding in tradition. “Public media had once been an entrepreneurial playground,” remembers Ford. Now though, “there’s just no experimentation,” he says.