MediaShift’s Mark Glaser talks innovation, news apps, and the future of investigative reporting
The Future of News initiative at the MIT Media Lab spoke with Mark Glaser, who started MediaShift in 2006 as a small, one-person blog, with a focus on the changes revolutionizing media and media technology. He quickly realized what a massive topic it was and now his organization gets about 150,000 unique visitors per month at MediaShift and IdeaLab, the two main sites, while about 15,000 users download podcasts and another 15,000 get five newsletters. “We go where the subject takes us,” says Glaser. Its audience is a mix of people in the media industry, freelancers, people who run their own web sites or create podcasts, and journalism educators and students. MediaShift is an independent producer for PBS.org.
His organization has grown thanks to grants from organizations such as Knight, sponsorships, and running networking events, workshops, and hackathons, and they are developing online training modules. This is an edited transcript of an interview with him.
Q: Mark, you focus on innovation a lot. Where would you like to see more innovation?
A: Some of the legacy organizations are kind of stuck, especially in leadership roles. If there’s one area where news organizations could change, it’s first, to bring in more diversity, more women, more people of color. And number two, bring in people with a lot more experience in the digital realm. A lot of people come in and lead these organizations and talk a lot about digital and how it’s so important, but when their background is very much legacy, the changes don’t really come. I think there needs to be more change within the leadership before some of these organizations will change. It’s the same situation in journalism education. Some schools are really pushing for innovation. But 90–95 percent are doing the same things they always did, teaching people to write for newspapers, teaching people to broadcast. They are not really understanding that we must train people for the real world now, which is multi-skilled, multi-platform skilled, understanding web, SEO, promoting themselves, entrepreneurial skills. All the things that journalists need now, they need to start training them for. If they don’t, they are not going to survive. Innovations really needs to be from the beginning, with training all the way up to leadership. That’s where I’d like to see more innovation.
Q: Where does video news streaming fit into what’s happening right now?
A: There’s been a few interesting things. Vice is upfront in sending out live streamers at protests or in war zones, trying to capture things. It’s almost like a hidden journalist or someone who might not be obvious that they holding up a phone. That’s a really interesting way to capture things. It’s almost in the middle between someone who is a broadcast journalist and someone who is an activist on the ground. I think there will be a lot more blurring of the lines. When you look at a lot of the coverage in Syria, a lot of the coverage that goes on, there are people who just happen to be on the ground shooting video. A problem is figuring out OK, is the video real, who shot it, where did it come from? A project like Reported.ly, that Andy Carvin runs, is interesting because they’re trying to look at social and trying to suss out what is real and what isn’t.
So many people are doing more and more original video. Legacy media and digital only are all doing stuff with video, plus al the things that are being captured on YouTube and other places by citizen journalists.
And video is super interesting especially when it becomes more searchable and findable. It’s interesting to see how it has changed the TV and movie industries, with Netflix and Hulu and Amazon. To see CNN, where they’re news focused, and just decide now we’re going to do original shows. It’s also an interesting area for mobile apps, with streaming news and video feed. You are seeing so many ways to do it, from someone just staring at a camera and talking, to bringing a phone out to a war zone and all kinds of crazy stuff. I don’t know if anyone has figured out the best way to get your news on video. I think that’s still in flux. There’s been some interesting projects like Witness, trying to figure out human rights related videos were real and which weren’t. There has definitely been a lot of effort in there.
Q: What news sites stand out for you as doing good work?
A: There are a lot. I like what the New York Times does with their NYT Now app, on the app side. I like Circa, I like Yahoo News Digest, I think they are all interesting and I use them quite often. On the web side, I like what the Atlantic has done to transform their business. I like what Vox is trying to do with a lot verticals on different subjects. I like what Jeff Bezos has done so far with the Washington Post, in trying to preserve some of the traditional work, and mix in new apps and other things. I like some of the nonprofits and the work they are doing, like Center for Investigative Reporting and some of the podcasts coming out. It’s hard to list them all, there are so many. When you look at some of the awards that come out, you start seeing there is still good work being done and it is not just the usual players, there is interesting work being done on the edges too.
Q: What are you seeing that is compelling in the news apps space?
A: Apps are really interesting to me because I don’t think there is a clear leader.
I think it’s a wide-open space, where we’ve seen only the beginning of what’s possible…. It’s funny, I think for a while apps were the dominant thing. Every site should develop an app. Then the Financial Times really pushed back on that and said they wanted to put all their resources into their site. Then it seemed like there was this moment where a lot of people were retreating from apps. Now I feel like apps are back in.
There’s been some research out on the amount of time people spend on apps versus let’s say what spend on mobile web. It was a pretty massive amount of time. I feel like it will still be a mix. I think people will still use mobile to some extent and these apps too. I don’t think it’s easy for a small to medium news outlets to build an app.
I think it’s a question of whether apps are really going to get people’s attention. Most people’s mobile screens are littered with apps. How many do they use or use it once and never go back to it? It’s a hard battle to win and make your app stand out, especially when people spend so much time on Facebook, Twitter and social networks. I don’t think that means to abandon them, I just think it’s going to take a little more to stand out.
Q: When it comes to news app design, there are so many approaches right now. Do any stand out?
A: I don’t think there are any winners. There are definitely some leaders trying to do things. NYT Now is an interesting way of doing things. And some others too like Circa, Yahoo News Digest, BBC, and a few others. You see so many different ways of doing it. They are all trying different approaches. It’s hard to do side by side comparisons of who is doing what and what is working well. For instance AJ+ from Al Jazeera is completely different and super video driven. You open it up and the video starts and it’s got feedback and it’s very different way of doing it. And my initial take was I wouldn’t want that but that doesn’t mean another other group of people might think it’s best.
Look at Snapchat. There are news stories within Snapchat that disappear after a day. That might be getting more traffic than all the other apps combined, for all we know. It is a real interesting time. It’s definitely like a Wild West scenario. I don’t think we really know what is going on and we’ll be watching it closely because that is usually the most interesting time to look at something.
Q: Are you an optimist or pessimist when it comes to the future of journalism?
A: I’ve actually been optimistic about the future and the present. I feel like I’ve been talking about the future so long it is now the present. So now I talk about the present more. I’ve always been optimistic about where it is and where it will be mainly because there’s more journalism being done by more people than ever. There are a lot more voices who are part of journalism. Back in 2007, I said I was optimistic about the future of journalism and people thought I was crazy or there was something wrong with me. Now more and more people are seeing the same thing I see, which is while now the future or the present might not be about monopolies in newspapers and monopolies in broadcast telling us what news is, it is going to a bright future about people who do collect the news, whether they are at a traditional outlet, digital native outlet, or a nonprofit investigative outlet. Wherever they are, those are the people who are making a difference and will make a difference.
Q: What about long-term investigative projects? Are you worried that new organizations don’t have the money or to do those types of investigations?
A: I think that’s a long-time concern. I’ve been going to the Logan symposium, which is kind of an investigative journalism symposium that happens every year at Berkeley. I’ve been seeing those folks every year and seeing what’s going on. They did have their year when they talked about the future and what’s going to happen. Personally as far as investigative work goes, it’s going in different directions. I think that it remains at the traditional outlets because it’s what sets them apart.
When a place like Buzzfeed starts an investigative unit and does deeper work, you’ve got to wonder if there is obviously something there. If you look into the Institute for Nonprofit News, there are probably 100-plus nonprofit investigative outlets around the country, and probably around the world too. They’re looking at things from different angles whether it’s someone covering the environment or Inside Climate News, which won a Pulitzer, or doing local coverage like the Texas Tribune, or others. There’re a lot of people out there. That’s not to say their business model is secure. No ones business model is secure when there’s this much disruption. But there could be a model that works. It might be a combination of for-profit, some non-profits supported by foundations and donations and membership. And then the public media models, which is people who give money and there is some sponsorship.
I think investigative work is interesting right now. In the past, an investigative journalist would try to work on a story for a year and would eventually come out of his cave and say, Here is the story. But I think a lot more is being done collaboratively and out in the open to some extent. I think it’s a real interesting time for investigative work, especially with the data out there for people to parse, and people getting access to data and seeing what comes up. Places like Pro Publica, that’s what they do.
Published in the Future of News March newsletter.
Matt Carroll runs the Future of News initiative at the MIT Media Lab. He can be followed at @MattatMIT. Besides a monthly newsletter, he also publishes “3 to read”, a weekly email of three interesting stories about the news media.