It is typically this time of year that, through a mind-numbing parade of industry conferences, legacy media companies attempt to buffer another winter of discontent with hopeful messages about the future of the business amidst ongoing retrenchment.
Last week, I attended two disparate conferences that shunned hype and hyperbole (and despair), and provided a decidedly forward-looking and practical perspective: America East, addressing media and technology strategies, and Journalism Interactive, an event attended mostly by journalism educators, focused on inspiring and preparing the next generation of journalists.
Despite the very different audiences, some common themes emerged from both events:
Data will be at the core of everything media companies do going forward. Data will drive all business strategies including customer acquisition and retention, sales and pricing as well as audience segmentation and content and product development approaches. On the journalism side, deep data sets and sophisticated (and often free) analytical tools will advance investigative reporting; real-time analytics will impact decisions on headlines, article form and content, distribution, platform effectiveness and story placement. The message: to thrive, media companies should find scary-smart data scientists and journalists steeped in data analysis.
The future is visual. While the written word will continue to be a powerful form of expression, visual storytelling -- using a mix of media forms (see a great example here) -- will drive engagement and deeper understanding in a world of six-second messages. Journalists who can craft compelling stories using video, text, audio, animated gifs, innovative design, augmented and immersive reality and other tools will be in high demand. Media companies that use engaging forms of story presentation across devices and platforms will attract marketers who covet that relationship once owned by TV.
Community engagement is critical to business and journalistic success. Community means different things to different organizations. But regardless of how community is defined, if media companies are not emotionally connected to their constituencies in meaningful ways, those customers will drift to publishers they perceive as more interesting, relevant and inspiring. Social media platforms are providing powerful tools to connect, inform and entertain those customers. Journalists can use technology to establish a personal brand that can bestow more authenticity and establish deeper connections with their readers.
Embrace technology to solve problems -- for media organizations and their customers. A range of accessible tools and technology -- for both print and digital -- have emerged to help streamline operations, improve quality, create and distribute content across platforms and grow new revenue streams. For journalists, the tools available to enhance probing, reporting and storytelling - from drones to Google fusion tables -- are mind boggling. Digital strategist Amy Webb, CEO of Webbmedia Group, points to "must have" tools, including MindMeld, Quill and WolframAlpha, that could transform how news is captured, reported and edited going forward.
Those who ponder whether media companies should become technology companies or if journalists should develop programming skills are asking the wrong questions. The technology platforms and expertise are the easy part. What's hard is for media managers and journalists to develop the technological proficiency to think differently and creatively about what is possible.
Which leads us to the final theme: Entrepreneurism needs to be the lifeblood of media organizations and the oxygen for journalists. While newspapers and other traditional media companies have embraced innovation, true entrepreneurship will not thrive in risk-adverse cultures. USA Today Publisher Larry Kramer -- who spoke at the America East conference -- urged media companies to "reward and incent people to do things differently" and to "recruit people who can think entrepreneurially and also understand the needs of the legacy business." Umano CEO Ian Mendiola, another speaker, encouraged attendees to tap into young innovators and "create a team dedicated to exploring crazy things."
The takeaways from both events are not about the relative health of media companies or the importance of journalism degrees. Rather, it's about tangible evidence that there are innovators in our midst who are passionately committed to changing the paradigm. There are media and technology executives that are experimenting with new business models and organizational approaches. There are journalists and journalism educators who are excited about using technology to find hidden stories, increase accountability, inform the citizenry and engage audiences in ways that were never possible before.
From that perspective, the future indeed looks bright.
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