New Media and News Professionals

When I was invited to Newsgeist, an exclusive invitation-only unconference for “news professionals”, I thought there had been a mistake. Which of my lives had attracted the attention of news folks? My YouTube videos? Parable of the Polygons? Maybe our VR stuff, given its applications to journalism? None of it quite fit, but in the mood to learn something new, I accepted the invitation exactly because it was outside my usual sphere.

And so, on December 8th 2016, I walked into a room full of people I had never heard of before, but got the feeling that maybe I should have heard of before, especially when I’d turn away from a conversation and have someone else whisper emphatically “Do you know who it was you were just talking to?”. I’ve been a regular at enough small conferences to recognize the feeling in the room: it’s an insular group that knows they’re perhaps too insular, but nonetheless they are happy to be back together again at this conference as if they’d never left, continue the same conversations they have every year, and circle nervously around the same big fish they circle nervously around every year.

I grabbed a drink from the open bar and inserted myself into a few conversations, not exactly sure how to introduce myself but enjoying the feeling of anonymity. In the days that followed, it turned out that quite a few people at the conference were familiar with Parable of the Polygons, and that news professionals think having a million YouTube subscribers is impressive, and that virtual reality was something everyone is aware of as being a thing, but is uttered like an incantation, the way “algorithms” used to be whispered before we realized they were just another human tool subject to human error. I started to get a sense that these different lives of mine are all part of the same thing—the new media that is supposed to save journalism.

I was a bit surprised by the attendee-set agenda. Everyone wanted to talk about how to regain trust, how to reach people, how to make new business models, get subscriptions, survive and be heard. None of this resonated with me, being someone with perhaps more trust and subscribers than I’m comfortable with. I was hoping for sessions related to the nitty gritty of how to do journalism, or about the content of news at all. I commented on this to several people and was recommended other conferences. Newsgeist, I was told, was too high-level. And so instead of learning about how news gets made, I learned about the collective psychology of the news industry.

Less than a month after the 2016 election, with its plague of media scandals and “fake news”, the room was full of the camaraderie that comes from having been through this thing together, a feeling of mutual horror and failure and contrition. There were a few people each from the New York Times, Washington Post, Vox Media, and Google, people from Mother Jones, ProPublica, Facebook, CNN, and various universities. This was the liberal media, and it seemed to me they felt hungry for someone to swoop in and say “You did bad. You’re the worst. And here’s the thing you did wrong, and here’s how you make people trust you again like they should, and then everything will be back to normal.”

In retrospect, it shouldn’t be surprising that sessions focused on the business side of news. At Vidcon, a conference for online video, you hear more about how to get clicks, likes, and subscribes, how to build an audience, grow your channel, and monetize, than about how to make good videos. At GDC, the game developers conference, you hear more about how to capture and retain players and what monetization strategy is right for you, than about how to make a good game. As VR matures, increasingly at VR gatherings you hear about the business of VR and how to create a successful startup and get funded, rather than how to create good work in this new medium. Somehow I had expected that a conference about news would be different, but of course, the people there already know how to do news (or at least have been doing it long enough that they think they do). They’re still riding a long wave of anxiety that started when online articles overtook print journalism (or perhaps earlier), and now they’re dealing with the expectation of social media presence across multiple platforms, and on top of all that, our president-elect is calling them failures and fakes. This was a room full of people with very little trust that good journalism gets rewarded by its own merit, looking for any way to fix journalism that doesn’t involve changing the journalism part.

I suppose I was invited due to some self-awareness of how insular they are, that mostly they don’t have a good understanding of new media or how to build a loyal audience. This despite that Newsgeist is centered around the more technology-focused people in the news industry. And here was the difference between Newsgeist and many other industry conferences I’ve been to: there was a certain intellectual honesty and willingness to listen to outside perspectives that perhaps comes with being in the business of reporting the truth. There was a feeling of cooperation and good faith, a lack of ego. I don’t know whether that’s due to something about news folks in general, or good work on the part of the organizers, but it was refreshing to feel like maybe I’m the biggest asshole in the room.

When discussion turned to online video and ad-driven business models, I was surprised that news video producers didn’t know that most professional youtubers don’t make the bulk of their money from ads, but even more surprised that rather than digging into the “get views! get ad impressions!” idea pushed by YouTube, they were open to the idea that maybe producing videos just for the sake of selling ads wasn’t the future of news after all. They wanted me to tell them they were wrong.

When discussion turned towards designing a hypothetical news site that made the ad-watching experience more palatable by having entertaining ads that people actually want to watch, I told them this was not a news site, and that those who would work on such a thing are in the entertainment business, not the news business. Not only did no one express offense to such a statement, later a couple people went out of the way to thank me.

When talking about social media metrics and retweets, I informed them that they were mistaken in thinking that a social media share is a share of their article, rather than a share of a headline, and that the more retweetable the headline, the less it needs any article behind it at all, because users have already imagined the article in their head and already agree with it. If you reward articles based on metrics like retweets, you’re better off not bothering with the journalism part!

(Virtual reality, by the way, is at a disadvantage because most people aren’t familiar enough with the technology to imagine what the VR journalism piece shows without having to actually experience it. There’s a large barrier to shareability when you have to engage with something before knowing what it is you’re communicating by sharing it.)

When discussion turned to trust, and most people’s suggestions had to do with proving correctness, having better fact checking, and making sources more transparent, again I disagreed. Trust isn’t about being right, but about what you’re willing to sacrifice for your values, I told them. Trump was willing to sacrifice every political norm in order to “tell it like it is”. Liberal news media couched their facts in moderating language in order to look as nonpartisan as possible. Technically true reporting reeked of an unwillingness to sacrifice anything for that truth.

The longer I was there, the more I felt the urge to dramatically embody the new media hero I felt they wanted to stand up and shout, all ye sinners, let me tell you of truth and of trust! Be not distracted by the worldly temptations of shares and likes, for they mean nothing to the higher truth that is good journalism! Ask not that your audience believe in you, but show how you can serve your audience! Deny the trickery of online advertisements. Behave with the highest integrity and you will reap the twin rewards of recognition and subscription!

After all, it worked for me, right?

I got the feeling that I had information this group sorely needed, that most of them had learned about new media from those whose business is buying and selling new media, not from those whose business is creating new media. Luckily this wasn’t just information they needed, but wanted! I was invited to share it!

I also got the feeling that to an institution like the New York Times, spherical video is about as new as twitter, as vlogging, as interactive data journalism. Whether true or not, it’s a useful perspective for me. And as this blog is about VR/AR/etc, I thought I’d expand on that feeling a bit.

The overplayed VR discussion has to do with storytelling, how to do it, can you do it, etc. What I find interesting is what you can do that isn’t storytelling. Seldom does reality fit into a nice tidy story, but the lengths we go often lead to misrepresentations and conspiracies. Journalism is already good at stories. How can we do better journalism when we’re not tied to stories as our only option? How do you digest truths that don’t conform to a neat story? 

There’s not too many examples of great data journalism yet, but there’s enough to show how effective it could be once we get good at it. Vlogging is a powerful style that can show a personality, a life, a way of being, without the story expectations of film. And we already know VR is brilliant at giving a sense of place, location, of space and distance, without the necessity of a descriptive story, an ordering of shots, a suggested focus. 

What does news look like when it’s a place? When we want to know what the news is in a place, can we learn to consume the news as a place, rather than a story about a place? Can I be in the windy weather shot rather than see someone tell me a story about how things are blowing over? Can I walk through virtual Aleppo before it was bombed, and then scroll through time to the present and feel the place that was lost? What does news look like when we can feel distances? Can I timelapse through a life-size 3D world that lets me feel just how far, close, and connected, far-off events are in relation to the world I know? Can VR give me a better feel for just how big this border wall is supposed to be and just how long the border is?

Existing media is good at story. VR technology could be great at story too, maybe, but also at so many things we couldn’t do before! Not just places and distances, but bodies and motion, 3d data representations of the likes we’ve never seen before, the organization of objects into natural grabbable positions, the observing of behaviors at real size and velocity, people in the context of their function in a room rather than in a grid of headshots, the slow existence of things as they are. Journalism has so much room to grow by embracing the strengths of new media, the differences. The future of news is more than stories.

Well, that’s my story about Newsgeist and new media. The end.

Vi Hart