What I brought home from Newsgeist (except for saltlakrids)?

(reprint from my Medium post)

Three days in the woods of Denmark, talking journalism, technology and the future of the media? That was a weekend perfectly spent with almost 200 other people from media and technology industry gathered at Newsgeist Europe, an unconference organised by Google. Its agenda was participant-driven.


The discussions were under “Chatham House” rules, which means that statements cannot be attributed to individuals, which made the conversations way more open. I’d like to, however, share some of the insights I brought, things for myself (and maybe for others) to reconsider and focus on. They are based only on the few discussion I joined — there were altogether over 60 of those.

1.never stop talking about TRUST

This is a topic I’m very interested in so I tried to join as many sessions as I could but actually the truth is that many of them at some point switched to talking about trust. The issue was discussed on different levels: trust and emotions, trust and data, trust and revenues, trust and platforms or trust and media professional standards… I was very happy that it was not narrowed down just to fake news/post-truth phenomena, as that would simply mean playing down the problem (and I loved it that most of us agreed that fake news is the best thing that happened to the news literacy!).

Of course we didn’t come to any perfect solutions on how to regenerate trust, we even didn’t manage to fully define what “trust” actually is and why we need it (OK, here we were more leaning towards: we need it to do our mission, than: we need it to earn money), but we all know that something needs to be done so that people trust media and stories that we share more. We need to build relationships of trust. Both for media’s future but also for the future of societies and democracies.

Not going much into detail here, as that would take me pages to write down. Some good solutions coming up soon from the Trust Project, an initiative that was born during one of previous Newsgeists.

2. never stop talking to THE PEOPLE

Did you ever hear anybody telling you: you’re talking like Nigel Farage? Well, I did and it was at Newsgeist and it would be terrifying if the second part of the statement wasn’t: and you are right. Thankfully it was! :) Although it might sound like generalization but the media and journalists do not listen to the people enough. We don’t listen to their emotions, their fears, we don’t pay enough attention to their perspectives. And the truth is that “feelings are biological metrics for relevance” (one of the best quotes from Newsgeist!).

The media are full of politicians, but not of the “average” Kowalski, Smith or Müller. We get surprised when Brexit happens, shocked when Trump wins. We listen to the people when tragedies occur — terrorist attacks, Grenfell Tower fire, shootings — but not before… We are not proactive when it comes to hearing the voice of the everyman, of the minorities, the excluded — we are actually retroactive. So the big challenge is to bring those stories and people back to the media. To hear the voices outside of the capitals, to be able to pitch stories in communities — just like Humans of New York did. To stop asking questions that only reaffirm our biases and theses. Also, to build databases of prospective protagonists, topics, angles of stories. Shoe-leather reporting should be back in town! 

3. indeed, it’s 2017 and we’re still discussing DIVERSITY

Oh, OK, we all know what that means. Too few women, too few minority representatives in the media. Both as experts, as protagonists, as journalists, as managers. Are we able to ask the right questions, talk to the right people if we’re mostly male and white in the newsrooms? And it’s really 2017!

4. bring LITERACY to your newsroom

Although media literacy was largely on the agenda, I very much also enjoyed discussing “How to maintain a high level of digital/journalistic/product/design literacy in the newsroom?” Some conclusions here: no, journalists do not need to know all the new tools and technologies. They don’t have to necessarily know how to code, what to do with Snapchat, how to use engagement data — but they need to be aware of the possibilities new technologies bring and not be afraid of them. It’s about soft skills and understanding technologies, not about tools.

We need a cultural change in the newsrooms. Let’s connect journalists more often with developers, coders, let’s do editorial meetings with people who do graphics and apps, let the tech people understand stories and journalists understand how tech can make their great stories even better. Hackathons are awesome and let’s keep on doing them, but in newsrooms we need far more cooperation than the incidental one. Different teams should see what they work on, they should be able to share experiences and opinions, see practical uses of the tools they create = they should all be able (but not forced) to contribute and collaborate.

Metrics was a big issue at Newsgeist, too but I only was involved in discussions on how much journalists need it and whether data should influence the editorial. The numbers’ dictate does not help journalists in their work, does not make it better or more effective. Clicks, shares, views — the newsrooms do need that data, no doubt about it of course, but for the sake of quality — it’s not a key factor. It can be helpful, though — e.g. if we could track how much of a story is read and see when people usually drop it. Why? Should I write/film it better? How? On the editorial level it’s not that important what people are consuming but how they are doing it. So teaching some data literacy and curiosity among journalists here, could make a lot of sense. Also — choosing a person that could share data and updates on what is being done on the verge of tech/journalism in the newsroom, not necessary a project leader.

5. let’s stop talking INNOVATION, let’s talk and invest in R&D

For me, this is one of the most important messages of all the sessions. Innovation is important. But good research and then development is even better. Let’s experiment, but let’s know what for and who for we do it. Let’s make mistakes and learn from them. Let’s cross-contribute in R&D from different levels: editorial, sociological, technological, you name it. Let’s learn from e.g. Airbnb and their user-experience focus and creativity.

6. AUDIO is the new video?

I didn’t join any session on audio, but I’m putting it here as it seemed one of the key topics during the conference, even with a call for future Audiogeist. I’m not an expert on audio, but it seemed to take over many of the discussions — mainly because of such solutions as Alexa, Google Home etc. coming to the market (or rather: to our homes). How can media use it? Can we be effective? Does it even make sense to try to get a piece of cake here?

Btw, interesting observation. 2 year ago Newsgeist in Helsinki was in large part about video. This year none of the sessions concerned it (or at least, none had a title with “video” in it, maybe some discussions included the topic). Also, we didn’t talk traditional media almost at all — I remember the heated debates about the future of television two years ago. Why the change? I don’t know. Maybe video is no longer a challenge, compared to audio? Maybe simply most of the media have some sort of strategies here? And also, when it comes to traditional media, probably the disruption already happened.

7. yes, sustainability still means ADS and SUBSCRIPTIONS

So talking about media’s mission, about trust, about professional standards is super important, but… where is the money? So we tried to find it and… No, we didn’t. A discussion on revenues streams I joined, was very interesting but probably the one with longest periods of silence. Events (including live events), special reports, selling data, brand-extension businesses, micropayments or even betting (Sky Sports) might help, but will not make our outlets sustainable. What we still need the most, is ads and subs — however you call the latest (e.g. memberships). And what we absolutely need is a different type of cooperations with platforms (eg. Facebook changing its ecosystem to be more supportive to publishers subscription-models).

Those are just a few examples of things we talked and talked and talked. My friends who are economists, sometimes ask me: so what are the conclusions and solutions from those talks? Is it just so basic and academical? Well, no it isn’t. We rarely get a chance to talk in such a diverse and international assembly, to think of our future and our relations with audiences. Media is not just a business, it’s a mission so we need to talk.

But in this changing technological reality, we also need to talk to platforms and tech companies. I might be biased, because for the past 1.5 year I worked for Google News Lab, but I have to say that such initiatives as News Lab, Newsgeist or DNI Fund can help shape the common future. Of course there are still issues that are real sore places in those relations (ad revenues being the main one), and such events will not make them heal, but it’s good that Google listens. What would be also good for those future relations, as somebody suggested at the event — is that the big platforms and tech companies, should do more partnerships with media outlets that are not market leaders. The smaller players have less money to innovate and experiment and resources are still put in partnerships with those who are already leaders in innovation. That will make the disproportions even bigger. And if it’s really not just about money but the future of the media, the platforms should also think a bit more about diversity of partners.

Anyway, thx Google and everyone who attended Newsgeist. A lot to think about!

 PS. Google provided the venue, took care of the agenda and food. Everything else was covered by the participants.

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