By Jessica Clark, Senior Fellow, MIP
How can media makers and funders gauge the success of their projects when communications tools and platforms won’t remain stable long enough for them to establish reliable standards?
This is the question I hope to grapple with this spring in my research for the Media Impact Project. This inquiry will build on my past decade of work documenting continual disruption in the industries for news and documentary, and the struggles of media makers to not only invent new forms of digital and mobile public interest media, but to account for the outcomes of such projects.
The first challenge for those building media projects on new platforms is the loss of reliable benchmarks. Trusted legacy media measurement systems such as those built by Arbitron and Nielsen have become less relevant and comprehensive in an era of streaming media and mobile apps. To some extent, these have been supplanted or supplemented by a new generation of analytics tools, such as Google Analytics, Chartbeat, Alexa, or vendor-specific rankings such as iTunes Charts. However, these measurements have not been standardized across the journalism or documentary industries, and both investors and producers are spending much time and energy developing ways to sift and interpret the myriad streams of data.
Beyond the metrics, however, lies an even thornier set of questions. How are audiences — now empowered by countless opportunities for both participation and creation in media — absorbing, sharing, and acting upon reporting and narratives? A cottage industry has sprung up to define and measure such contested interactions as “engagement,” and “influence.” In what ways do these dynamics morph across platforms, or within particular platforms? How can makers find rigorous ways to document and parse user behaviors vis-à-vis experimental content forms?
Again, over the past few years, tools and methods have been developed for makers and funders to address these questions. Various producer communities have also banded together to contemplate their own impact issues, generating resources such as Impact with Games: A Fragmented Field, and BRITDOC’s Impact Field Guide and Toolkit. However, none of these tools or approaches explicitly address experimental approaches to media behavior. And now, there’s a new array of media interfaces looming on the horizon, threatening to disrupt matters even further.
The revenge of analog
In seeking to understand the next phase of interactive storytelling, I’ve coined the phrase “the revenge of analog.” This refers to a loosely connected set of practices and inventions marked by a new relationship between the physical and the digital. Over the past three years, I’ve been gathering examples, and have posted some of the most intriguing of them on a Tumblr blog, the Revenge of Analog. I’ll continue to update this, and to post related examinations on my discoveries to the Media Impact Project site.
By examining this emergent field, I hope to understand the ways in which evaluation practices designed for experimental interventions in volatile environments can be applied to assessing media impact. Chief among these is the “developmental evaluation” approach, designed by Michael Quinn Patton to support the process of social innovations. In this approach, the evaluator is positioned as part of a team that is conceptualizing, designing and testing new approaches, bringing rigor to the process by applying evaluative tools and methods. Other approaches, such as appreciative inquiry, outcome harvesting, and design thinking may also prove useful for assessing previously untested media forms. Key to all of these approaches is the link between collecting data to help media makers make editorial and business decisions, and collecting data for the purposes of “evaluation.” Aligning research with outcomes will be a central focus of my inquiry.
Projects that demonstrate the “revenge of analog” concept are neither strictly digital nor tangible. They combine the physical and the digital in unexpected ways, generating what I’ve dubbed “cusp interfaces” for users to interact with. While a new wave of increasingly accessible virtual reality projects aim to use digital tools to recreate physical experiences, cusp interfaces bring content back out from the cloud, making it available for users to touch, hear, manipulate and inhabit via real-world artifacts and environments. These productions draw upon a constellation of recent technologies, including inexpensive sensors, wearable tech, 3D printing, big data, digital projectors, locative apps and more. These technologies also have implications for new forms of impact tracking, such as biometrics and gauging neural responses.
Next on the horizon
Empathy, delight, identification and deep engagement are impact themes that run through the trends I am currently tracking in this space:
Sketching new genre boundaries
Are these odd things really even news or documentary? Where do we sketch the line between representing reality through media, and inhabiting a mediated reality? Drawing the boundaries of this emerging but disparate field is one of the challenges I’ll tackle over the course of this fellowship.
One interesting example which illustrates the pathway from broadcast reporting to digital through to analog is the 2014 Radiolab piece “The Skull.” The reporters spoke with researchers from London’s Natural History Museum about the discovery of an ancient child’s skull, which offered clues to our evolutionary history. In order to allow listeners to examine it for themselves, they worked with the Field Museum to 3D scan it, and made it available on Thingiverse—an online compendium of downloadable 3D printing data. A 3D printed model of the skull was also displayed at Mmuseumm, a tiny Manhattan-based museum based in an elevator shaft “dedicated to the curation and exhibition of contemporary artifacts that illustrate the complexities of the modern world.”
In addition to such small and bespoke experiments, of course, there’s a burgeoning industry for what many call the “Internet of Things”—analog objects with digital guts that allow them to communicate with one another, and in some cases with the larger web. Such objects have the potential to displace services traditionally provided by media companies. The “Ambient Orb,” for example, glows different colors based on Internet data feeds such as stock price or pollen count.
David Rose, the president of the company that created this intelligent artifact, is also the author of Enchanted Objects: Design, Human Desire, and the Internet of Things. He asserts that not only do enchanted objects satisfy the desires expressed in some of our oldest cultural narratives—i.e., fairytales—but at their most sophisticated, must be paired with stories that “will enchant the user. …Designers, having tapped the potential of personalizing, socializing and gamifying, can work to embed a drama in our heads. They can involve us in the story so the narrative gains a purchase on both our minds and hearts. It becomes part of our heritage, our folklore, our mythology. We can feel as if we are part of the action, even a central character in the tale.”
While not all of these impulses represent a measurable social goal, there are projects and makers with a social impact inclination experimenting with these new interfaces. Plus, if the expanding Internet of Things industry — projected to grow rapidly by any measure market experts might dream up — has the potential to reframe the stories we tell ourselves and one another, that promises to make a big impact indeed.
Understanding how new evaluation methods could inform the ways that media makers and investors leverage such emerging technologies feels like an important next step.
MIP Senior Fellow Jessica Clark is an internationally published journalist, researcher, and media futurist whose work connects thought leaders across disparate disciplines. She founded Dot Connector Studio in November 2013. Her first client was Media Impact Funders, a knowledge network for foundations that support media in the public interest, and she is currently serving as the organization’s Director of Research and Strategy
By Anjanette Delgado
Feeding a habit is much easier than breaking one.
Consider the morning news habit. We wake up, reach for our smartphones before even getting out of bed, and check to see what's happening in the world. Whereas once that was a printed newspaper or morning TV, now it's push alerts, Facebook posts, Twitter feeds and destination news sites. The technology has changed, but our habit remains.
News organizations working to attract and keep audiences (that's pretty much all of us, right?) can increase their traffic overall by publishing for the morning habit — posting stories ahead of the spike.
A few years ago I was the editor of Gannett's Salinas Californian newsroom. One of my first steps in our digital transformation was to build a Post and Readership Comparison chart, which showed when readers were on our site and when we published. The trend was dramatic — we published just as everyone was leaving. Very little of what was on our site for the morning news habit — the 8 a.m. spike — was new; most had been written the afternoon before on a print deadline.
When reporters saw the chart they started asking questions, then thinking, then planning what they could publish ahead of the morning spike. Some rearranged their work hours. Sunita Vijayan, who was then our courts reporter, decided she'd come to work earlier, publish a couple of quick posts about what court cases she'd be covering that day, and include a note to readers to check back later for updates. "Early and often," as we hear in Mic's editorial meeting.
"In less than two years we doubled our web traffic. At a time when everyone's web traffic was rising, we grew much faster than the industry average."
I've used this Post and Readership Comparison chart in a couple of newsrooms since then, and each time it inspires a change in how we publish and leads to an increase in traffic.
Now, what does your traffic pattern look like? Learn your spikes — mobile, desktop and social media — and test this idea to see if it works for you. And even more than increasing traffic (page views), does it intensify your stickiness (return visits, average time spent per person)? Stickiness leads to loyalty, to subscribers, donors, members and brand ambassadors — whatever your long-term goal.
Big, breaking news drives traffic regardless of time of day and shouldn't be held, but for everything else there's a spike waiting to be explored.
This is my first post for USC Annenberg's Media Impact Project. Each month over the course of the year, my colleague Rob Gates and I will discuss finding, measuring and studying audience, tracking impact, and wherever else the year and the technology lead us. Suggestions are most welcome. Leave us a comment, follow us on Twitter (@anjdelgado and @rjgatesontheweb) or drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
USC Viterbi’s Mike Lee Appointed Chief Technology Officer of Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project
Former Fox executive to lead product strategy and technology team
LOS ANGELES, February 9, 2016 – The USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center’s Media Impact Project (MIP) today announced the appointment of Mike Lee as Chief Technology Officer. Lee brings both industry expertise in building scalable media solutions as well as academic expertise in media analytics to his role at MIP, where he will lead the organization’s product strategy and technology operations.
Lee is a faculty member at the Viterbi School of Engineering at the University of Southern California where he teaches enterprise systems and, in collaboration with the Marshall School of Business, digital entrepreneurship. His research focus is developing new frameworks for digital marketing and media analytics.
Lee brings over 20 years of product and technology experience to MIP, most recently as Chief Technology Officer at digital distribution company Yekra. Lee led the development of Yekra’s media distribution platform which revolutionized the way films are discovered and monetized through micro-target audiences.
Prior to Yekra, he spent a decade in the media and entertainment industries, at Fox and Warner Bros, where he was responsible for technology strategy as Vice President of Technology. Prior to the studios, he was at innovative start-ups that have defined the consumer Internet, including Netscape Communications.
This announcement comes at a time of expanded demand for MIP services as the media industry transitions to actionable metrics that enable data-informed decisions. In particular, MIP is increasingly filling the need of non-profit foundations and media organizations for media impact measurement. This addition of senior product development-level talent enables MIP to scale beyond services to offering products that can have industry-wide impact.
“I am excited to align my research focus at Viterbi with the innovative work at Annenberg’s Norman Lear Center to solve the biggest problem that we face in media analytics – correlation of data across multiple sources into actionable information,” Lee said.
"Mike has a unique combination of technology execution and academic and analytics experience. Plus – from his decades at media, entertainment and Internet companies – he knows how to assess and develop scalable products, and he understands how research can be mobilized to help media organizations,” said MIP Director and USC Annenberg School of Journalism lecturer Dana Chinn.
The Lear Center's Media Impact Project is a joint project with the USC Viterbi School of Engineering that strives to accelerate measurement thinking and open source tool development in order to explore, validate and share solutions for measuring impact. It is supported by grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. For more information, visit mediaimpactproject.org.
The Norman Lear Center is a multidisciplinary research and public policy center studying and shaping the impact of entertainment and media on society. From its base in the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the Lear Center builds bridges between faculty who study aspects of entertainment, media and culture. Beyond campus, it bridges the gap between the entertainment industry and academia, and between them and the public. learcenter.org.
Located in Los Angeles at the University of Southern California, the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is a national leader in education and scholarship in the fields of communication, journalism, public diplomacy and public relations. With an enrollment of more than 2,200 students, USC Annenberg offers doctoral, graduate and undergraduate degree programs, as well as continuing development programs for working professionals across a broad scope of academic inquiry. The school's comprehensive curriculum emphasizes the core skills of leadership, innovation, service and entrepreneurship and draws upon the resources of a networked university located in the media capital of the world. For more information, visit annenberg.usc.edu.
Engineering Studies began at the University of Southern California in 1905. Nearly a century later, the Viterbi School of Engineering received a naming gift in 2004 from alumnus Andrew J. Viterbi, inventor of the Viterbi algorithm now key to cell phone technology and numerous data applications. One of the school’s guiding principles is Engineering +, a coined termed by current Dean Yannis C. Yortsos, to use the power of engineering to address the world’s greatest challenges. USC Viterbi is ranked among the top graduate programs in the world and enrolls more than 6,500 undergraduate and graduate students taught by 185 tenured and tenure-track faculty, with 73 endowed chairs and professorships. For more information, visit viterbi.usc.edu.
At the Media Impact Project we are continuously searching for new and innovative approaches to processing media data. In our work to develop taxonomies for news organizations it has become increasingly apparent that there is a need for technologies that can effectively understand and analyze language. Natural language processing (NLP) involves numerous programs that have the potential to be useful in these ways to news media.
To get a better handle on natural language processing and its practical uses and applications, the Media Impact Project commissioned a primer to the field. The paper, written by Dr. Atefeh Farzindar at NLP Technologies, surveys the broad sectors of NLP techniques and considers their value in various settings.
As this field continues to evolve, the Media Impact Project plans to remain engaged in assessing best practices for NLP technologies in news media.