The Return of the Human: Why Tech Companies Are Tapping Journalism Talent

    by Dorian Benkoil
    July 18, 2012
    Flipboard editorial director Josh Quittner (left) tells IAB chief Randall Rothenberg why he joined a Silicon Valley tech company.

    In digital media, it turns out, editors — actual human beings — might actually be necessary.

    At least that seems to be the trend as developer-laden ventures like Tumblr, Flipboard and even an ad network bring in journalists to help identify and stoke conversations across the digisphere.

    "Humans can provide context and judgement that machines can't." -Steve Rosenbaum

    “Many companies, particularly in tech, are looking for people to help them cohere a public-facing sensibility beyond simple functionality and service. Such moves seem to emanate from community roles but are moving beyond the rather simple way people used to think about online communities,” Tumblr Editor-in-Chief Chris Mohney told me. “If that’s a trend, I hope it continues.”


    At advertising and technology conferences where executives once talked up algorithms and efficiencies, there’s now talk of the need for the kinds of originality and creativity only people can provide.

    Say Media is one strong example. A few years ago, it was a tech-driven combination of VideoEgg, an ad platform for video, combined with parts of the Six Apart blogging platform it had also acquired.


    Troy Young, Say Media

    More recently, though, it has turned into a hybrid ad network/content network, something that company President Troy Young called “Point-of-View Marketing” at the recent IAB Innovation Days conference, a sentiment CEO Matt Sanchez echoed in an interview.

    For editorial properties like ReadWriteWeb, Remodelista and Dogster — all of which Say has acquired in the past year — “the value is the strength of the communities and the point of view of every site. The question for them is how do they extend that authenticity of those sites to having a genuine relationship with its audience?” Sanchez told AdExchanger’s David Kaplan. “That’s not something that happens through a trading desk. It’s about bringing in the expertise of our editors to shape a connection with our readers and provide a solid foundation for traditional ad salesmanship.”

    (Advertising agencies, media-buying companies, and even some publishers are creating “trading desks” devoted to finding cost-efficiencies and pricing in programmatic ad buying through advertising exchanges and networks.)

    Say last week announced it had hired a very editorially minded business person, Time magazine worldwide publisher Kim Kelleher, to replace Young, who is stepping down.

    A gamut of other media tech companies, too, have brought on editorially trained, or at least, editorially minded managers and staff.

    Silicon Valley-based Flipboard has always had smart engineers pushing the limits of HTML, JavaScript and databases, but last July it hired well-known magazine editor Josh Quittner as editorial director. “I really, once before I was done on this planet, wanted to work for a tech company that was a media company,” he said at the IAB conference.

    And, while current Internet darling BuzzFeed (which raised more than $15 million earlier this year) uses SEO and analytics to optimize the viral spread of its packages through social platforms, it has also hired editors away from Rolling Stone and Politico to help find and assemble the pieces to make them more click-o-licious.

    “Humans can provide context and judgment that machines can’t,” Steve Rosenbaum, author of “Curation Nation“ and founder of the Magnify.net video network, told me in an email conversation. “If the Google News algorithm pulls up an article, it doesn’t merit the same attention as a person.”

    Technology-Assisted People vs. People-Assisted Tech

    Even where technology is key, it’s often being used as an enabler for people, rather than as something built to operate without intervention.


    Steve Rosenbaum, Magnify

    Take for instance, Trada, a company I’ve mentioned before. Trada crowdsources online pay-per-click advertising, compensating the people who create the ads according to how well they perform.

    Sometimes, it’s about creating tools that empower humans to do better at what they do, rather than creating tools that make people conform to the technology.

    That’s what gets Forbes Chief Product Officer Lewis DVorkin fired up. “The world today is about content management systems that put algorithms in charge,” he said at a recent seminar held by the the New York branch of the IESE business school (full disclosure: a MediaShift sponsor). The seminar was on the same day that Forbes relaunched with a bevy of new social sharing and display features. “The technology today is about putting PEOPLE in charge.”

    Robots Can’t Feel

    Looked at through a long lens, the trend back to human-powered media has been around for decades. Technology infrastructure companies that distribute media have often gotten into producing it themselves: Westinghouse begot RCA in the previous century; Comcast is making media today through NBC.

    My previous column pointed out how portals and platforms like AOL, Yahoo and YouTube are paying tens of millions of dollars to get big-time talent to produce well-made content.

    But, it’s hardly the case that technology has lost the day — and particularly, in the ad industry.

    While Google dings sites that have algorithmic approaches to their content, it is also trying to facilitate programmatic ad buying through its DoubleClick platforms.

    The volume of real-time bidding (RTB), in which publishers have ad spots filled via an auction in a fraction of a second, has grown phenomenally, to 10 billion bids per day, by one account.
    And programmatic buying is becoming more common for video through platforms like Adap.tv.

    “Machines beat people,” Quantast CEO Konrad Feldman said at the conference. “The scale of decision-making of real-time bidding is unparalleled in history.”

    But, ultimately, it’s people who make decisions of what clothes, food, cars and other goods and services to buy, and it’s people the ads are trying to influence, people who have to create the content they’ll want to consume.

    So far, at least, that requires a kind of differentiation not yet possible strictly via computer code.

    “In a fully mediated society, we have to learn to get people to interact with us, and that’s extraordinarily difficult,” Young said, soon after appearing on an episode of this site’s the MediaTwits podcast. “Without point of view, you’re never going to have a conversation. It’s like talking to a robot.”

    “Machines can only see literal connections,” Rosenbaum added. “They’re solving math problems. So if your friend likes James Bond, and you like your friend, then you’ll like James Bond — or so the logic goes.”

    “Some day” we may see algorithms able to “bolt machine learning onto a social network” to really understand and give us the things we want, he said, based upon what we’re telling friends and who those friends are.

    Until then, though, it looks like people, who understand human thinking and emotions, have an opportunity to do work that only they can.

    An award-winning former managing editor at ABCNews.com and an MBA (with honors), Dorian Benkoil handles marketing and sales strategies for MediaShift, and is the business columnist for the site. He is SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on attracting, engaging, and activating communities through digital media. He tweets at @dbenk and you can Circle him on Google+.

    Tagged: algorithms dogster flipboard forbes google lewis dvorkin magnify readwriteweb say media technology tumblr

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