Platforms, Publishers Debate and VR Dominates 2016 GEN Summit

    by Benjamin Bathke
    June 21, 2016

    Last week, more than 600 journalists and media innovators hailing from more than 60 countries gathered in Vienna for the sixth Global Editors Network summit to find out what trends and topics are currently shaping the media industry.

    The conference host, the Global Editors Network (GEN), is a five-year-old non-profit journalism organization headquartered in Paris with the mission to define a vision for the future of journalism and further freedom of information and independence of the news media.

    The following is a recap of hot topics discussed at the conference.


    Virtual reality continues to pick up steam

    It’s hard to tell how soon virtual reality will become an integral part of the news business, but one thing is certain at this point: Newsrooms can no longer afford to ignore it.

    “VR is a technology you really need to experiment with,” Russia Today’s Alina Mikhaleva said at the conference.

    The 2016 GEN Summit featured a VR Studio that allowed attendees to experience some of the latest VR productions, including the BBC’s “We Wait,” a 5-minute short about Syrian refugees waiting to cross the sea; Russia Today’s “Donbass 360: The Ravaged Heart of Europe,” a look at war-torn Donetsk, Ukraine, and its bombed-out airport; VR 360 news documentary “Inside the Zika Epidemic” by Jean Yves Chainon; and a series of 360 news documentaries produced by Immersiv.ly about the upcoming Rio Olympics.


    Although the one-off approach still dominates the VR industry due to high costs and slow production, the movies shown at the summit and the New York Times’ recently announced VR series with topics including space exploration and the Olympics, shows that production of VR content is slowly but surely becoming more purpose-driven and less experimental.

    Platform-driven news are on the rise

    Aside from virtual reality, maybe no other topic is currently as widely and vividly discussed in journalism circles than the rise of platform-driven news and its implications for journalism.

    As more and more news content is consumed on third-party platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp or Snapchat Discover, many journalists fear that news providers are losing control over distribution, data and knowledge of their audience to a few centralized entities.

    Meredith Artley, editor-in-chief of CNN Digital, said more platforms means more opportunities for publishers to do more stories in different formats. “Yes, there are mysterious algorithms from Facebook and all the other players,” Artley said during a keynote discussion. “But we control what stories we do, how we do them and where and when we publish them.”

    Jan-Eric Peters, deputy CEO and editor-in-chief of personalized news app upday, said platforms can benefit publishers by driving users to them and allowing them to reach audiences they otherwise couldn’t reach.

    Peters’ sentiment was echoed by Wolfgang Blau, Chief Digital Officer at Condé Nast International, who pointed out that 90 to 95 percent of new users are coming to publishers through platforms like Facebook.

    Other speakers weren’t as optimistic. Arizona State professor Dan Gillmor called the power of platforms a “catastrophic problem for journalism,” urging practitioners and publishers to think about why they use platforms and what they hope to gain from it before pouring their work into them.

    Another word of caution came from Sindre Østgård, CEO of the Tinius Trust Foundation.

    “Media is weakening quickly,” the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation’s former head of digital said. “We need to redefine ourselves as service providers.”

    Østgård said when negotiating with platforms, publishers should take into account editorial accountability, financial stability, their relationship with users and the use of data.

    Sindre Østgård. Photo courtesy of GEN.

    Sindre Østgård. Photo courtesy of GEN.

    Another bone of contention was whether publishing is a primary goal for the likes of Facebook — or if platforms’ main interest in publishing is user engagement and advertising money.

    “I would love Mark Zuckerberg to say, ‘I’m a publisher,'” Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, told Eurocomm-PR in a pre-conference interview. “I think we need rich, powerful, civically-minded individuals with the technological capability to think about the hardest problems that we encounter when we are trying to report the world.”

    Bell’s advice for publishers is to have two strategies: one for distribution, and a second one for brand and revenue.

    The 2016 Reuters Digital News Report, presented at the summit, highlights another concerning trend for publishers: In today’s distributed environment, brand recognition will presumably continue to decline as more people find news through aggregators. Although consumers in countries like Finland and Germany recognize brands in more than half the cases (60 and 55 percent, respectively), only around a third recognize brand in social networks; And in Korea, where aggregated news sites are the norm, only one in four say they always or mostly notice the brand.

    This matters, according to the report, because it is “critical to whether publishers can capitalize on the reach and exposure that these platforms afford.”


    Nic Newman, who presented key findings of the study at the conference, said Facebook is not the perfect platform for news because it is “doing too many other things.” At the same time, he urged publishers to create great on-site experiences for loyal users while marketing their content and gaining new customers on distributed platforms.

    “It’s really about balancing destination and distribution,” Newman said in an interview with the Global Editors Network.

    You can watch the entire “Publishers vs. Platforms” keynote dialogue here.

    Personalization of news

    A closely related trend to the publishers/platforms debate is the increasing personalization of news, sometimes referred to as the “Netflix Effect.”

    Marten Blankesteijn, founder and CEO of Dutch media startup Blendle, believes algorithmic story selection with recommendation engines offers a variety of advantages for publications. Using the Washington Post as an example, the journalist-turned-media entrepreneur said it is impossible for readers of the Post to sift through the 500 articles it publishes daily.

    “The four [articles] you’ll end up seeing are probably not the ones that interest you most,” Blankesteijn said at the conference, adding that customization will cause people to read more stories and stay or become a subscriber.

    In this context, the Reuters study provided some relevant statistics: Although 36 percent said they are comfortable with algorithm-suggested articles, respondents across countries fear that key information or challenging viewpoints might be lost in an “algorithmically-driven filter bubble,” with Norway and the UK leading all countries. The study suggests that people think they are their own best judges, followed by (human) editors and their digital counterparts.

    Upday's Jan-Eric Peters, CNN's Meredith Artley and Microsoft's Tony Emerson during the "Publishers vs. Platforms" keynote discussion. Photo: Luiza Puiu, European Forum Alpbach for GEN

    Upday’s Jan-Eric Peters, CNN’s Meredith Artley and Microsoft’s Tony Emerson during the “Publishers vs. Platforms” keynote discussion. Photo: Luiza Puiu, European Forum Alpbach for GEN

    Several panelists pointed out that personalization gives digital businesses a big advantage over print, mainly because of the instant feedback on what readers want to see.

    Andrew Jack, the Financial Times’ head of curated content, said personalized newsletters allow for a more intimate connection with readers and have a slightly higher engagement rate than standardized emails.

    The consensus among speakers, who represented organizations ranging from legacy institutions to media startups to universities, was that curation is beneficial as long as publishers leave room for serendipity.

    “At the end of the day, every organization needs to decide the level of personalization,” Jack said during a panel discussion.

    Reuters Digital News Report — other insights

    Aside from the findings on brand recognition and personalized news, here are some other noteworthy (and surprising) findings from the Digital News Report.

    • Contrasting a widespread belief about the dominance of video along with the decline of text, the report suggests that consumption of online news video is still a minority behavior in the 26 countries where people were polled.
    • For the very first time, social media (28%) is more important than TV (24%) for the discovery of news for young people aged 18 to 24, who also increasingly use social to consume news. And for every group under 45, online news is now more important than television news. Being alerted to stories they might have otherwise have missed and the convenience of having multiple sources in one place are the top two reasons for the popularity of news aggregators and social media for news.
    • Mobile and tablets combined are now more important for news consumption than computers. In the BBC’s case, around 70 percent of traffic comes from mobile devices.
    • The first point of contact with news in the morning also happens increasingly on social platforms, albeit important regional differences. In the U.S., it is 48 percent compared to 33 percent of Britons whose first news source in the morning when using a smartphone is social media. For news websites and apps, it is 23 and 48 percent, respectively.
    • Other findings of the report include only around eight percent of smartphone users currently use ad-blockers as people continue to reject current ad-tech; a continuing reluctance for paying for online news, mainly due to the sheer volume of content available in English relative to other languages; a stronger trust in news in western European and nordic countries than in the U.S. and southern European countries; And in most countries, people trust news brands with a long heritage and a strong reputation rather than individual journalists.

    Freedom of speech and privacy issues

    In a discussion with Belinda Goldsmith of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Gérard Biard shared how cartoonists can remain creative in an environment of fear.

    “Our limits are the French laws, our own history and our own feelings,” said Biard during the interview. “We always have been fighting against racism, against homophobia, against antisemitism, against all totalitarianism. We do not make racist cartoons, or attack people for what they are. We attack people for what they think or for what they do.”

    Biard, who was accompanied by six personal security guards, called the publication’s purported obsession of Islam an “urban legend,” pointing out that only seven of the 523 covers to date were about Islam. He said 17 portrayed Christians and most of the rest were about social issues.

    In a keynote speech, outspoken Silicon Valley critic and Guardian columnist Evgeny Morozov talked about the ramifications of publishers relinquishing audience data.

    “If you do not control whatever little data you already have on your audience,” Morozov said in a pre-conference interview with the organizers, “you abandon that function to intermediaries like Facebook and Google, and then you’re losing your most important asset and they’ll squeeze all the profit out of you.”

    The author of “The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom” said “data extractionism” will also be the key to political, economic and financial power, as it gives the big tech players with the ability to analyze that data a huge advantage. Morozov advocated for a framework that regulates the use of data.

    Evgeny Morozov, addressing a group of GEN participants in a follow up to his keynote speech at GEN Summit 2016. Photo: Luiza Puiu, European Forum Alpbach for GEN

    Evgeny Morozov, addressing a group of GEN participants in a follow up to his keynote speech at GEN Summit 2016. Photo: Luiza Puiu, European Forum Alpbach for GEN

    Austrian activist Max Schrems, who gained notoriety through his campaigns against Facebook for violating European privacy law, called the current hacking vs. encryption battle where journalism organizations use Secure Drop and other means to keep sources anonymous and data safe a “Wild West-approach” that distracts journalists from doing their work.

    Generally speaking, Schrems said issues revolving around privacy are too abstract to make the headlines unless a compelling figure like Edward Snowden is involved. Similar to Morozov, Schrems argued that awareness of the problem is not a final solution but that we need proper laws and proper enforcement, such as a European data protection organization, which he is working on right now.

    “Ten experts can cover the issue for 500 million people in Europe,” he said.

    Furthermore, Schrems, who has initiated two lawsuits against Facebook, said it would be justified if Facebook paid its fair share for getting articles and user data for free from publishers.

    Current and future journalism tech trends

    A number of technological advances presented and discussed at the conference are already shaping news or will have a tangible influence on journalism in the near future.

    Multilingual news

    The trend of vertical publishing, the emergence of content platforms for specialized communities as well as more effective translation software is giving publishers an opportunity to produce content in multiple languages and thus cater to a much wider audience. It also opens up a market for border-crossing journalism, of which the Panama Papers are the most prominent example to date. But major challenges for multilingual news, most notably translation, CMS compatibility and journalists’ mindsets, remain. Click here to watch the entire session.

    The promise and peril of chat apps

    As of June 2016, chat is larger than social networks in number of active users (three vs. 2.5 billion) and in terms of the volume of video and photo content shared. Philippe Hertzberg, international affiliate at Empirical Media, said platforms like Whatsapp, Line and WeChat are prime business channels that allow publishers to build a narrative and interact directly with users, thus serving as a community builder. In her speech, futurist Amy Webb discussed benefits and drawbacks of chatbots, such as Microsoft’s AI chatbot Tay.

    Robot-supported journalism

    “Robot journalism is mature enough to be considered part the newsroom,” said journalist and developer Laurence Dierickx, who was part of a panel that assessed the state of this nascent but quickly emerging field. Fellow panelist Helen Vogt, head of innovations with the Norwegian News Agency, said robots will analyze big data, produce small texts fast, save time and be able to work more accurately than their human counterparts. Journalists, on the other hand, will train robots, enrich their texts as well as record and archive data, she said. Although a 2015 Gartner study suggests that 20 percent of business content will be produced by machines by 2018, speakers agreed that if anything, robots will free up time for journalists to do other work, not replace them. Here’s what other attendees thought about robot journalism.


    Another emerging technology newsrooms are starting to adopt is newsgames, which was the subject of a lively panel discussion with three industry pioneers: Marcus Bösch, founder of Good Evil Game Studio, Cherisse Datu, JoLT Fellow at American University, and Latoya Peterson, deputy editor of digital innovation with ESPN. You can watch the entire session here.


    Lastly, three competitions that started months ago came to a conclusion during the summit: the Data Journalism Awards, the Startups for News battle and the Editors Lab. The Data Journalism Awards, which took place at Vienna’s opulent city hall, awarded a dozen 1,000€ prizes to as many data journalism projects in 12 different categories ranging from data visualization to news data apps to the use of data in breaking news stories. One of the winners were the Panama Papers for the best investigation of a large newsroom category.

    Photo: Luiza Puiu, European Forum Alpbach for GEN

    Photo: Luiza Puiu, European Forum Alpbach for GEN

    The Startups for News battle, a global pitching contest that saw eight news startups compete for the top spot in Vienna, crowned transcription software Trint as its grand winner. Founded by Emmy-winning former war correspondent Jeffrey Kofman, Trint is a browser-based platform that allows journalists to convert audio or video file to text. Trint also received funding from Google’s Digital News Initiative and investment from the Knight Foundation’s Enterprise Fund.

    Finally, the Editors Lab, a series of global hackdays, culminated in Vienna with Indonesian media organization TEMPO taking first place for its Green Saviour: Stop the Haze game, which was inspired by the widespread forest fires that swept through the Southeast-Asian country in 2015.

    Benjamin Bathke is a freelance multimedia journalist and Global Journalism Fellow covering media innovation, technology and startups. Follow him on Twitter and see out more of his work here.

    Tagged: Benjamin Bathke dja gen summit global editors network news innovation platform dependence robot journalism Vienna virtual reality

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