The impacts of technological and socioeconomic changes on media
Earlier this year, after PressReader’s Workshop at the TED 2017 conference in Vancouver, Drew Ogryzek of The Vancouver Tech Podcast http://www.vancouvertechpodcast.ca/episodes/68398-episode-74-nikolay-malyarov-and-david-uberti sat down with David Uberti of the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) and myself to discuss some of the hot topics keeping media executives awake at night, including the effects of socioeconomic change on journalism, media consumption, and much more.
Here’s a condensed transcript of the full podcast.
Drew: Welcome to episode 74 of the Vancouver Tech Podcast. I have a couple of amazing guests with us here today — https://www.cjr.org/author/david-uberti/ David https://www.cjr.org/author/david-uberti/ Uberti, writer for Columbia Journalism Review and Nikolay Malyarov, Chief Content Office, at PressReader. David tell us about yourself and why you are here in Vancouver.
David: I’m a staff writer for a magazine called the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, where we do a mixture of media reporting and media criticism. I came to Vancouver to participate in a great event hosted by PressReader, where we talked with a lot of people outside of the industry about how to approach some of the really existential problems within media and technology today.
Drew: Very cool. So there’s quite a few things that we’d like to drill down with you regarding that, but before we do, Nikolay, thank you very much for being http://betakit.com/vancouver-tech-podcast-ep-64-nikolay-malyarov-of-pressreader/ back on. Tell us a little bit about PressReader, about your role there, and about what this event was all about.
Nikolay: PressReader is a place where people go to discover, read, discuss and share news that matters to them from trusted sources around the world. Apart from being a miniature version of the United Nations by virtue of the culture that we built in the company, PressReader is moving in so many directions that I wear two hats. I oversee the content side of the company in terms of building relationships with publishers beyond simply distributing content, and
I’m also General Counsel for the company. PressReader is an amazing company and I’ve been with it for 14 years now.
Drew: A lot of very interesting changes have happened in technology, print and digital media in the last 14 years. What was this event that was going on that brought people all the way from New York City?
Nikolay: TED itself obviously requires no introduction. But this was the first time that the TED organizers decided to hold workshops in between the sessions that are televised and broadcast around the world.
We were invited to host one of the workshops which was about breaking the news and its future. We decided to style it as a miniature hackathon, which was incredibly difficult considering the time constraints that we had.
We had an hour and a half for the whole session and although we had a pre-registered audience, we didn’t know who they were. We had zero understanding as to what their level of expertise was in the publishing industry. So we had to start from scratch and give them the lay of the land on the industry. Naturally there were certain interests that these people had in terms of content distribution, trust in content, the content that they choose to consume, and the new models that are evolving out of the changes that are happening in the industry.
This mini hackathon was designed to get people talking about solutions for the challenges that the industry is experiencing. We invited three experts from the field
(one of whom was David) who are very knowledgeable about the three specific challenges we posed to the audience.
We were looking at the viability, creativity, and sustainability of their solutions — not for a pie in the sky, but something that could be implemented fairly quickly. So our experts helped facilitate the conversations of our six groups of attendees as they discussed
their assigned problem, helping to answer questions and field ideas that had been previously explored but lacked longevity. Drew: Okay, David, let’s hop back to you. Tell us a little bit about Columbia Journalism Review, what that is, and your part as a staff writer.
David: We are a magazine, and by magazine I mean we’re a website and print product; plus, I host a podcast called ‘The https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-kicker/id1178127323?mt=2 Kicker’. I write a weekly newsletter for our members in our community and basically it’s a mixture of media reporting and media criticism. We analyze news coverage and the narratives that emanate from news coverage, but also cover some of the trends that are driving financial change or economic change within the industry. That could be anything from consumption habits to the advertising side of things.
One of the things that’s changed for us, particularly over the last year since the US presidential election, is that there’s been a very much renewed public interest in the social good that is journalism — what journalism should be and what role it plays within society. Not only are we trying to hold media institutions accountable, but also act as a sort of ambassador for journalism, what journalism should be, and communicate that message to a larger public outside of the media industry.
Drew: So I’m not sure if this is a side effect, but a very interesting thing about Trump’s election and the process, I think, is that it seems to have gotten a lot more people interested in and talking about politics. Have you found that to be true and what sort of challenges has this brought up within the media industry?
David: He’s certainly the most polarizing subject of journalism that I’ve ever come across. People are either diehard Trump fans or they’re diehard anti-Trump fanatics. I think it presents some challenges for journalists. We sort of adhere to this ideal of objectivity — this idea that you’re walking the middle ground between political poles. You have this figure who’s so polarizing that it really makes it difficult to find that middle ground.
I would say that it also provides us an opportunity to potentially forge a new path ahead. Objectivity has always been the ideal, but it’s something that we can’t actually attain. So I think now we’re seeing journalists and people who are leading media organizations increasingly look toward how they can be fair toward their audience, upfront with their audience, and establish some semblance of public trust in many cases where that has atrophied.
Drew: You also mentioned criticism about news and news publications. We see some interesting things often in satirical contexts, but how do you go about handling that in a reporting style or context?
David: Criticism is an interesting beast. You have to consume a lot of media and have internally very clear north stars of what journalism should be. At our publication we have a certain set of objectives that we’d like journalism to accomplish, best practices and whatnot. I think what’s emerged since the election in the United States is a lot of introspection from the American media in particular.
You do have some reception among mainstream journalists to reevaluate their role and to look at stories that they’ve covered or longer trends of coverage and reevaluate whether or not that’s good, whether they’re falling into traps of both sides-ism or adhering to neutrality when they should have a harder edge.
Drew: Is unbiased journalism a thing?
David: It’s an ideal, but I don’t think it actually exists. I think objectivity is like this internal mythology that we’ve really been using for decades. In a previous era of mass media you were trying to shoot for the middle with the majority of people, basically trying to be centrist, one way or another. Now with so much choice within the media market, I don’t think that you could build a viable model strictly off of down-the-road journalism. Even if you have publications such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, they sell themselves as neutral arbiters of truth, but in reality what they are selling to their audience is a particular world view and a particular set of ideals that they hold as an institution.
Drew: And that’s okay?
David: Yeah, I think that’s perfectly fine. I think the important thing from my perspective is that publications and individual journalists are upfront about their own personal perspective, their own biases. I think we’re at this historical inflection point where we’re moving away from this notion of objectivity, more in the direction of journalists saying, “Hey, this is where
I’m coming from. This is the evidence, I’m going to lay out for you, but also this is my conclusion.”
Drew: That’s quite different from how journalism was portrayed in the past. Why do you think that is? What’s causing this change? Does that seem to be the trend?
David: I think it’s mostly a socioeconomic change. You have obviously huge, huge trends within consumption habits. People are moving from print media toward digital media. They’re moving from linear TV toward more on-demand video. I think there’s so much choice within the market that people are naturally going to gravitate to things with which they identify. Whether that’s a political affiliation or whether that’s their personal identities or cultural affiliation.
I think we’re at an interesting spot right now where there are opportunities to build business models by cultivating a targeted, focused audience that all share a set of community ideals. We’re seeing some interesting experimentation in that regard. Obviously legacy news organizations can’t necessarily do that because they’ve established a brand on a certain set of principles. It’s an interesting train to navigate.
Nikolay: Now, naturally the more content you consume that is in support of your political affiliations, the more of that content you will see as you engage with other readers who are in that same chamber.
Drew: I’d love to hear your feedback on that, Nikolay. How does PressReader’s role fit into that that equation? And do you notice, from your perspective, that a lot of journalism is somewhat becoming opinion pieces with arguments, showing the facts as being presented and the conclusions that they’re coming to.
Drew: This sounds to me like you’re saying there is a deliberate and a conscious effort to ensure that for a PressReader user, if there are topics that he/she is interested in, then their feed is not just full of the particular biases that they might subscribe to; but rather it tries to show some amounts of both sides and then it’s up to the user to decide what to actually read.
Nikolay: That’s absolutely true. And on top of it there are a number of other features in the product that put the user into the
engagement cycle with other readers. And that engagement cycle will inevitably lead to some sort of a debate on the issue. Drew: A bit of a philosophical question... How important is that, even leading into that debate? Is there some part that might think that it might be comforting to think that yes, we’re providing both sides? But is that enough?
Nikolay: That’s a deep one. We have a few internal mantras at PressReader. One is that, “It’s just the beginning.” And the other, “It’s never enough.” So if I were to sit here and tell you that, “It’s enough”, I’d be lying.
The revolution that we have gone through in the past two decades has allowed us, as individuals, unprecedented access to information. That’s really what’s fueling the progress for us as a society.
Think of Google and what it means beyond being a search engine. Googol a number; it’s 10 to the 100th power — basically infinity. And that’s what content is — infinite. More and more content is going to be produced which creates another set of difficulties for new media organizations that are trying to enter the space. How do they make themselves stand out in the crowd? How do they build the trust with the readers? Drew: Now David, I’d like to actually ask you kind of the same question but maybe phrased a little bit differently. In journalism, understanding that we have our biases when we’re reporting things and potentially overcompensating by pointing out the other sides that could be there, is that enough? We can often feel safe perhaps that we’ve done so, but is that not also pointing out or creating a bias in another direction or only a twosided story potentially?
David: Right. An interesting case study came about during the presidential campaign in the United States and immediately thereafter. It’s almost become a meme within the American media community of sending reporters out to the middle of the country to talk to the mythic Trump voter who is a hard-on-his-luck Democrat who used to work in the factories where NAFTA screwed him out of his job in the 1990s.
There’s been story upon story laying out these individuals, and they’re all true stories. But it does accentuate a certain segment of the population to the detriment of other segments of the population; so I do think there can be overcompensation in one way or another to charges of bias.
I think for journalists it’s very important for them to be self-aware about what their motivating ideals are and how to actually go about that in a very straight line. Drew: For sure we’ve mentioned fact as being important, but when we consider perspective in conjunction with fact we can often see that there are many sides to stories. Something that Wikipedia, I think, has done a very interesting job of opening up who is responsible for curating fact. That sort of tries to give a lot of perspective or ability to have perspective. Oftentimes you find in the discussion page a lot of interesting things going on. I was really surprised in looking into some computer science or linguistics books and going into the discussion behind things on Wikipedia to find the authors sometimes having these discussion there. They are people who definitely care about these topics very deeply. Sure sometimes there’s misinformation. Do you see as a kind of decentralized
model for contributing to information, as being something more that we’re going toward?
David: I think we’re there already. If you spend time on Twitter or Facebook you’ll see a democratized information environment one of the ideas of the early internet. But I think you will always need journalists, people who are dedicated to cutting through that noise. There’s so much information that’s overloading us from every direction now that I think it behooves us as a society to support people who really think about these questions in a very critical way.
Drew: Almost like electing somebody to do research for us.
David: Yeah, certainly.
Nikolay: Look at the printed publications in the past. The editor was the curator of that content. That was his job or her job. As consumers we paid money to the editor to produce the content; we trusted that editor to publish the content that would be of interest to us.
I think with the Wikipedia example you’re bringing up is an interesting point of community engagement…
Drew: Maybe creating its own echo chambers?
Nikolay: Maybe so, yes. Again that creates another set of problems, but as part of the hackathon today at TED we looked at solutions to industry challenges and there have been a number of solutions that actually focused on community engagement.
At the last podcast we talked about a oneway communication that existed in the past between the journalist, the publisher, and their audience, and obviously that doesn’t work today. How do you engage with your readers beyond simply providing them an ability to comment? There are some really, really clever ideas — ideas that the judges thought were the most relevant, the most applicable, and the most sustainable. We’ll feature them in the next issue of The Insider on PressReader. Drew: How do things like trusted news sources versus false news play into all of this?
David: Just for some background, trust in media, public trust in media is at an all-time low depending on what poll you look at, but trust in particular media institutions remains high. So I do think that while people in the United States at least distrust “the media”, there is some identification with certain outlets which I think is important and those outlets need to maintain.
I think one of the downsides of this broader trend of democratized information (the internet) is that it does allow people, who have ill intentions or just don’t have training or don’t adhere to journalistic principles, to put information out on the internet very easily.
That can travel very wide very quickly. So in terms of them having that ability, the benefits certainly outweigh the downsides, but there are downsides. We see that with things like fake news or any other misinformation you see online.
Drew: Now is that very different from what we’ve seen historically?
David: I don’t think it’s particularly different, other than the delivery mechanism. I think the fact that we do have these tech platforms that have such large scale, it allows this misinformation to travel farther and wider and faster than anything we’ve ever seen before.
Nikolay: The immediacy of its impact and a virtual inability to counter that impact later
on is an issue. We talked about publishers trying to be first over being factual and how so many have gotten into this habit of trying to break the news story first, without really verifying it — creating a snowball effect by propagating the same piece of information, which would later be proven to be untrue.
Obviously there are a number of tech platforms that are trying to address that with either labeling the story that appears to be not-quite-factually based, but it is a challenge that we need to address.
Drew: Does it matter if the publications are factual, are true? How does it matter? Why does it matter? When we say something’s factual I think that we want to believe that this it’s true, and we want to have the best perspective around it. But I don’t know that we can ever know with 100% certainty that what we’re seeing is true and from a perspective that is the only perspective or the truest perspective, or from all perspectives that encompass all truth for everyone forever. What we have, at best I guess, is a subset of possible truths around the facts and perspectives.
Nikolay: Maybe it’s a slightly naïve way of thinking, but I would think that for us to be a progressive society, we need to be an educated society. You can only become an educated society if you are exposed to facts around which you can draw your own conclusions, should you choose to.
Now, you can artificially limit the number of facts that you’re exposed to, either yourself or by virtue of some sort of a control, but I don’t think that’s a society that we strive to be. I have difficulty imagining a society that lives without access to facts. Maybe I shouldn’t have difficulty, given some countries that actually live in that realm.
Drew: Last time you were on the show I think we talked a little bit about fact and how when you start to add complexity to it becomes very difficult to prove. I think we said if there are 10 people, it’s relatively easy to prove. You could have a camera. Maybe you can have multiple camera points and kind of show the context.
But then when you say something like they are together, what does that mean? Are we now showing intent? They’re protesting against something. Those kinds of things start to become more and more difficult to prove without having further background knowledge. But I think often, and maybe I’m wrong here, when we are showing fact it is leading to opinion. I think now maybe we’re more open about that and saying, “We have a conclusion. As journalists we’re trying to lead somewhere.” Is that the case or am I missing that? Is that a good thing? And then how factual do or should we be?
David: I think that’s certainly true. If you were to look at newspapers or news programs from 50 years ago, they would have a much more standard, who, what, where, why approach to news. Now just given the fact that we can get so much information about breaking news events instantaneously online, journalists have to add value through their analysis.
Now if you look at a newspaper, it’s not who, what, when, where, why, it’s ‘so what’? Why should we be caring about this? It’s a more analytical perspective and it inherently opens the reader to the journalist’s perspective and then the journalist in turn to their readers’ criticism of that perspective — which is a big social change that we’re still trying to figure out.
I think it’s definitely good that we’re moving in that direction but it’s a question also of how journalists frame that, how they present that to the audience saying that, “Hey, this is my
bias, upfront. “This is where I’m coming from and this is how I got to my conclusion.” I feel like right now we’re sort of in the center of these two different eras in that respect, and we don’t really know quite how to deal with that.
To your broader question about why it matters whether it’s true…
If you look at the American election, Donald Trump told a very good story. He said basically the system was rigged, and there’s inherent truth to that. But if you were to actually look at the facts of whether he had a plan for that, whether that he was the right guy to tackle that question, there are a million other facts that point to the notion that he’s not the right person to pursue that perceived mission. So, I think in the American election, at least, we had a situation where a better story overcame facts and a lot of the public decision making. Which I would argue led to a bad political outcome.
Nikolay: He not only managed to tell the story, but managed to tell the story in the most effective way by going straight to the people that he was trying to reach — going with the message that was perhaps so far out of line, so far out of the proverbial norm, that it would get the extra coverage on mainstream media because, “Ooh, he said this or he said that.” It was that continuous spin of the stories that were planted through these direct-toconsumer channels like Twitter that gave him that extra coverage. Drew: Historically journalism and news media publications have acted a lot as filters for information, whereas now there are a lot of direct lines. So I guess that begs the question, do we need these filters and should we, as people, actually take more responsibility? I guess we do with what we choose to read and whatnot, but should we be actively seeking these filters?
David: I think generally speaking news literacy is horrendously low and that’s something that we need as a society to address. I also think that news consumers need to take responsibility for filtering their own information diets, so it’s a little bit healthier than it currently is. But I also think from a journalistic perspective that the role is changing a little bit. We’re not speaking from on high to our audience. There’s a good argument to be made now that, just given the amount people are able to participate online, that journalists should slide into the role of discussion leader as much as they are this arbiter of truth. Which I think can be a very constructive thing.
In our discussion this morning for example, we had a lot of back and forth with people that are not in the industry, which I think moved all of us collectively ahead. I heard things that I’d never heard before. People in the audience heard things that they had never heard before from within the industry. So I think having that role of leading discussion and trying to proactively seek out engagement from people is more in the direction that we’re moving now. Drew: Now you’re saying leader but I’m for some reason kind of reading between the lines and hearing facilitator. Is that right?
David: Yeah, I think that’s a fair characterization. I think when I say leader or facilitator I mean you need a person who spends time thinking about exactly how to structure this, how to do this in the best way to have the most constructive outcome. Obviously you can differ in the details of how to approach that, but I do think that it’s helpful to have someone who has some semblance of expertise or some previous knowledge that will help guide the discussion in the right direction.
Drew: How has the new format of technology and life and media changed the interaction between media, journalists, and the public?
David: There’s a lot more instantaneous feedback, for better and for worse. For example, I get a lot of really great reader email, just based on what I’ve written. People email me back and I tend to try to publish those things when I can, just to have a reader roundup, because I like to have that give and take.
On the other hand, and you saw this a lot over the last year or so, there is a lot of targeted harassment toward journalists who write things that displease people, which is a huge thing that we need to address. That obviously extends far beyond journalism too. Everyone has had interactions with trolls online and there’s a big troll culture and we don’t really know quite how to handle that. But I do think for journalists, particular female journalists, particularly Jewish female journalists, they do face a lot of that online and it’s really frightening in some cases.
Nikolay: This is spot on. We did talk about how the monologue era of journalism has ended, and that does give opportunities to engage with readers, should you choose to engage with them. And that’s a big should, because not everybody does choose to do that.
I think the facilitator characterization is an interesting one because I always thought that journalists almost have a higher mission in society — they educate society. Civility in communication is one of those elements that forms part of that education.
But there is still that human nature feeling that, “Oh well, since I’m doing it from my phone or from my computer, nobody will know who I am.” So maybe this is what we need to talk about. Guess what? Everything that you do is known to everyone who needs to know — from level of your IP address to your demographic data — and there is a lot that can be done with it.
What you say online does matter, not in a way that will stifle the conversation or impede people’s freedom of expression in any way, but because you wouldn’t necessarily say those things face to face. People have a very different perspective when they’re sitting on the other side of the screen. Drew: There are so many other topics I’d love to explore with, but we’ll have to save those for another time. Thank you both again very much for being on this episode of the Vancouver Tech Podcast.
I think as a media organization you need to ask yourself these questions, “What do you want to get out of this engagement? What is your mission in terms of reaching these readers — these consumers of the content that you create?”
Do you care about the readers? Because if you do, then I’d say that engagement is the only way forward. But if you don’t care and your position is still from the dark ages where, “I’ll produce the content, you read and do whatever you want”, then there is an expiry date on that model.”