By Johanna Blakley, Managing Director & Director of Research, Norman Lear Center
The degree of personalization and algorithmic curation used in the delivery of mobile news was a key theme at ONA Mobile, which brought together an international array of digital-savvy journalists in the organization’s first convening outside the U.S. The Lear Center’s Media Impact Project sponsored the conference, in part, because we see mobile fast-becoming the primary platform for news delivery. And, although mobile is still very much in a Wild West phase, where accepted standards are few and far between, the opportunities to measure real impact on people’s lives is simply unprecedented.
As many speakers acknowledged, mobile is “very hard” but the pay-offs are definitely worth the pain. Between the rigors of submitting to Apple, maintaining mobile-responsive websites, reformatting for Snapchat, and navigating the ever-changing rules at Facebook, mobile news providers are constantly challenged to make it pithier and make it relevant. In many ways, I’d argue that mobile pushes journalists to achieve a new level of rigor in reporting.
Issues of customization and curation came up repeatedly, with an acknowledgement that “personalization” is not as straightforward as you might think. As Buzzfeed’s Stacy-Marie Ishmael explained, people don’t live static lives. We are in different situations throughout the day, with constantly shifting priorities informing our decisions on how we allocate our limited attention. Truly informed news curation and delivery would take into account each individual’s changing needs and desires: the golden chalice for the media business. Deliver enough distracting news alerts that don’t offer enough value to interrupt someone’s day and your notification privileges will be promptly revoked.
As readers of this blog probably know, I’m really interested in the ways in which big data can be harnessed to better serve audiences, and so I was thrilled to attend an entire session devoted to Customizing Mobile Content: Human, Machine or Both? The panel featured Tom Standage from The Economist, one of those rare news publications that’s actually in the black. Standage argued that Economist readers respect the acumen of its reporters and prefer the publication’s 100% human curated approach, and the complete lack of customization. Indeed, The Economist doesn’t offer a single personalization option on any of its platforms. Standage referred to it as “the opposite of the Daily Me.”
Rich Jaroslovsky, a digital veteran who launched wsj.com, represented an entirely different approach. With his new effort, SmartNews, he proposes the algorithm as editor. He’s trying to quantify quality by analyzing patterns of usage of news content on 10 million URLs in order to identify 1000 news stories worth distributing to their user base. A firm believer in the evils of filter bubbles (I’m not), Jaroslovsky claimed that the SmartNews curation process eliminated ideology from the equation and provided an objective view of what news was worthy of attention. Jaroslovsky bristled at the notion that the SmartNews algorithm might reflect any of the human biases of its makers, which mystified me and at least a few others in the session.
The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo delivered the final presentation at the conference, which turned out to be a rather breathless exhortation to get on Snapchat now and witness the weird new rules for media engagement on mobile.
Manjoo is not the first social media expert to tell me in no uncertain terms that Snapchat is THE app to watch. Snapchat’s deeply counterintuitive approach to “social” – there’s no opportunity to share anything or like anything, really – turns all of the incentives of social media upside down and completely defies accepted standards for social media currency. Snapchat’s “phone first” philosophy, in which there are no links just swipes, is a bit mind-boggling for digital natives over the age of 14. But old-schoolers who remember the days of must-see TV were surprised to hear about the un-archivable, un-shareable professional media content (including a reality show) that only lasts a day.
Where is the value here, the savvy audience asked, and how are we supposed to harness the power of Snapchat for our news organizations? Manjoo seemed a little unprepared for the question but eventually determined that news organizations ought to explore the value of discovery oversharing. In my mind this suggests a tight focus on pleasing the individual person rather than regarding that consumer as a node on a potentially profitable distribution network. While I see a huge amount of social value in the participation in social networks, it will be fascinating to see whether this new twist on the social formula will lead to more deeply engaging media experiences that approximate something closer to dreams than memes. How news organizations might benefit from this sea change is about as murky as media metrics.