The press and the media industry in general are today facing huge challenges. How can Silicon Valley technology help to meet them?
The current political situation in the United States has exposed some of the weaknesses of the press industry. Starting around the time of the recent US presidential campaign, a wave of ‘fake news’ has been sweeping across the media landscape. An Ipsos poll conducted on behalf of BuzzFeed News in December found that 75% of all US American adults who were familiar with a given fake news headline thought the story was accurate. Meanwhile the social networks have helped to propagate a lot of false information.
At the same time, a real climate of suspicion and mistrust has been creeping in between the traditional media and its audiences – newspaper readers, TV viewers and radio listeners. A mere 18% of Americans say they trust the information they obtain from national press organs, according to a survey conducted in January 2016 by the Pew Research Center. Meanwhile the Gallup management consulting company website warns that “Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history”.
However, ‘fake news’ and readers’ mistrust are not the only thorns in the side of the media. It is still proving a challenge to monetise online content and media channels are still searching for the right business model. Up to now many have accepted the idea of monetising clicks rather than content. This means that once a page has been opened it is of little importance from a revenue point of view whether the reader peruses the whole article or whether s/he is happy with the content. All that matters is getting paid for each click on the published advertising. This is why compelling headlines have tended to prevail over content quality. Nevertheless, the current trend towards using ‘ad blockers’, i.e. tools designed to block the display of advertising on your screen, clearly demonstrates the limitations of this system.
Moreover, writes New York Times journalist John Hermann, “the transition from an Internet of websites to an Internet of mobile apps and social platforms, and Facebook in particular, is no longer coming — it’s here”. Facebook is in fact gradually becoming the go-to place to obtain information, and traditional media are having to adapt and reinvent themselves in order to survive.
Media startup coming to the rescue of incumbents
The new information and communication technologies are sometimes singled out as being a major cause of the media crisis but could prove to be a solution. Perhaps startups, bringing digital tools and emerging technologies such as Virtual Reality, will come to the rescue of traditional media.
While it is true that the sums raised from venture capital firms by media tech startups have been in decline since mid-2013, it would be a mistake to think that they have entirely lost their attraction, as media companies have stepped in to invest. The media industry’s leading players – especially the large press groups – have been particularly active over the last four years, either stepping up their investments in and acquisitions of promising startups or else, like the New York Times, the Washington Post and Berlin-based Axel Springer, launching media startup accelerators. Moreover, the figures differ from segment to segment. Investments in the field of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have risen by 137% in volume terms since 2015 according to venture capital database CB Insights. A total of 38 deals were signed in 2016, up from 16 in 2015 and just seven in 2014. So media startups have certainly not faded out of the picture.
The number of investments in VR and AR startups by traditional media sector firms has been rising steadily for the last three years
Internet giants concerned about fake news
Facebook and Google, who have been accused of unwittingly helping to disseminate fake news during the US Presidential campaign, recently announced that they had started developing new fact-checking tools designed to root out fake news stories in France, ahead of the country's presidential election. Facebook also started recently to warn US readers about controversial content. Any item that has been flagged up by users as untrustworthy will appear on the site with a ‘disputed by third party fact-checkers’ tag next to the headline. The leading social network provider now also offers a means of linking to an article explaining the reasons why the truth of the information is in doubt. This is a good start, although the tool is not able to make the vital distinction between satirical media and a traditional newspaper, and the term ‘disputed’ might make people think that there actually exist different ‘truths’ and tenable positions when it is probably a simple matter of verifying the facts of the case.
Facebook is taking an intentionally ‘softly, softly’ approach so as not to act, or be seen to act, in Mark Zuckerberg’s words as “arbiters of truth”. He refuses to countenance fact-checking by Facebook, as journalists would do, in order to decide and establish the truth, arguing that Facebook is not a media company. Nevertheless, Tony Haile, founder of New York-based web analytics company Chartbeat, reckons that Facebook is in fact getting close to becoming this kind of firm, given that the revolution in the media means that platforms like Facebook are increasingly doing what publishers do. He points out: “Publishers do five things: they create, post, curate, distribute and monetise content. Facebook now does four of those five... [But] they don't create."
In addition to Facebook and Google, a number of startups in the United States are now mobilising to tackle this hot topic.
The aim of Silicon Valley-based Averpoint is to make interaction between users and major institutions – press and brands – more transparent. They have developed ‘proof points’ – annotations which highlight the source of the information presented. For the moment, the ‘proof points’ are written by contributors and people with an AverPoint account. The site also enables publication of ‘native’ content. Here it is up to each writer to supply the ‘proof points’ so that his/her content can be approved by the platform. The proof points may be contradicted, but here again a contradiction must be supported by fact, which should help to ensure the information is clear and reliably verified.
Austin, Texas-based startup Authenticated Reality, driven by a vision similar to that of Averpoint and created by cybersecurity experts, has come up with nothing less than The New Internet – an ultra-secure online community. Only people who have been verified as real human beings by the company’s authentication system may use The New Internet, which enables authenticated comments and ratings on any URL in order to create interaction and encourage the quest for the truth.
Traditional media adopting innovations without downgrading journalists’ work?
Nowadays the traditional media no longer shy away from using Silicon Valley technology and practices. In January, leading French newspaper Le Monde launched Décodex, a tool that enables users to check the trustworthiness of websites. The New York Times has even started to publish its journalists’ tweets on pages used solely for this purpose in its printed editions. However, it is vital that adopting new ways of doing things does not have a harmful effect on the work of traditional press journalists. San Francisco-based Le Monde correspondent Corine Lesnes explained what is now happening during an event called Future of Media: How innovations are changing the game's rules event, hosted by L’Atelier BNP Paribas North America on 23 February. Taking Snapchat as an example, she saw its work as a positive development, which does not seek to replace the writing job that is the province of news reporters. She told the audience: “Every time I go back to Paris, I try to understand why we have to make videos. If we’re so proud of the articles we write, do we have to switch over to images? And they say, well, it’s because there’s more growth potential there, people prefer to receive information through images and so that’s what we ought to be giving them. OK, fine, but in that case a news writer will also need to become a film director.” In fact, “Le Monde is taking the same approach as Silicon Valley‟, she explained, “We try out new things and see if they work‟.
This is also happening with headlines, which are often edited by staffers who have not written the articles, in an effort to increase their appeal for readers. Corine Lesnes commented wryly: “I learned to write very factual headlines such as ‘Yesterday evening’s L’Atelier BNP Paribas North America conference proves popular’, but today, in order to pique the reader’s curiosity, someone might decide to turn my headline into: ‘So what happened at the L’Atelier BNP Paribas North America conference yesterday evening’?”.
At some media channels, technology influences journalists’ work by enabling the number of views an article gathers and the number of times it is shared to be measured, which is all about quantity and does not necessarily say anything about the quality of the article. At Le Monde, the two criteria are in fact not correlated. What are regarded as top quality articles can only be read in subscription editions, which means they are by definition seen by fewer people.
While today both Le Monde and the New York Times still earn most of their revenue from their print editions, this will probably no longer be the case in future. Digital versions enable extensive trialling in order to help find the right model.
VR a springboard to gaining trust?
Press organs are also now dabbling in producing immersive content that can be consumed either via a web player or using a VR headset. High-quality cameras able to capture 360° images are already on the market today, such as those developed by Californian companies Giroptic and Orah.
Since November 2015, the New York Times has taken its readers off on a pilgrimage to Mecca, into orbit around Pluto and to the Fallujah battleground in Iraq. And the NYT’s desire to venture into virtual reality has led to the development of a mobile app called nytvr. Some speakers at the Future of Media event underlined the advantages of immersive content. Explained Deniz Ergürel, founder and CEO of Haptical, a startup which aims to publish the first newspaper entirely in VR: “Newspapers in paper or digital format take us to the door of the latest news, but virtual reality takes us further, slipping us right inside the content. In five to ten years we’ll literally be walking around inside the news!” Virtual reality also has the power to add resonance to ‘cold’ news by introducing a highly emotional dimension into news content. Luc Dumont, Chief Business Officer of San Francisco-based Orah, pointed out:”We’re talking here about a completely new way of consuming news. It’s no longer completely under the sole control of the journalist, the reader now also becomes a player in the news process.” So everything happens as if the reporter had lent the audience his eyes, which might help to resolve the issue of trust in the media. Seeing is believing and if, paradoxically, virtual reality holds the promise of allowing people to see things with their own eyes, they are more likely to be convinced.
However, as Ben Werdmuller, Director of Investments at New York-based Matter – an acceleration programme for media startups – reminded the audience, these advances will not free us from the risk that fake content can be distributed in VR mode, in the same way that today we see articles on the web that are based on falsehoods.
VR and AR a source of additional revenue for the press?
So might VR content generate extra income for media companies? To date, most of this content is available for free. Going forward, depending on how it takes off and how the general public reacts to this kind of content, the systems that are today used to regulate access to press articles and videos could also apply to VR. Monetisation models such as pre-roll videos and premium content offers are sure to emerge. Luc Dumont reckons that in addition, product placement, a widespread practice in the film industry, could also enter the VR world: “Brands will quickly realise that there’s a lot more room inside virtual reality content than in a traditional video. So we could envisage advertisers paying to have their logo or advertisement displayed in 360° content‟.
Virtual reality and augmented reality, 360° video, fact-checking tools – all these Silicon Valley-developed innovations provide ways of helping the media industry to reinvent itself, to combat fake information, to restore trust between journalists and their audience and to find new business models for monetising content, while at the same time adjusting to the realities of the new media. Like anyone else, journalists will need to adapt, but hopefully they will be able to avoid letting the technology make them lose sight of the basic principles of their craft.