Beyond shiny new toys: tech promises exciting opportunities for media and journalism

What do you get when 1,600 media and tech professionals, entrepreneurs and investors take over a hall at Columbia University with students and faculty at NYC’s cutting edge journalism, media, design and engineering schools? You get a collectively enormous IQ and an optimistic sense that the latest technologies promise exciting opportunities for media and journalism.

I spent last Thursday at NYC Media Lab’s annual summit chatting to students demoing their creations, hearing heavyweights at the intersection of tech and media speak about their visions of the future, and diving into virtual reality and deep learning in intensive sessions.

What’s my takeaway from it all? Well, it’s truly an exciting time to be experimenting at the intersection of media and tech. On a personal level, I’m thrilled to be diving headfirst into the world of digital media and journalism startups in NYC, after packing my bags from a career in mergers & acquisitions in sunny Sydney. But lest we get too carried away by the shiny toys, at least some of the day’s speakers spoke insightfully about some of the real challenges that publishers continue to face in this digital landscape.

The shiny things: virtual reality, augmented reality and deep learning

There were pitches, demos and talks of every flavor: IoT, big data, data visualization, video, gaming, computer software and hardware. We heard about the building of the Holodeck (Star Trek fans, rejoice). But the summit’s focus on two topics in particular stood out to me: VR/AR and deep learning.

Virtual reality and augmented reality

VR and AR got the lion’s share of attention throughout the day, understandable given their power to capture our imagination and suggest that the future has already arrived.

A panel comprised of investors, entrepreneurs, academics and corporates was optimistic about the future here. In their eyes we should think of VR as if it were the web in 1995: in its early stages but possessing an inertia that will ensure it changes our lives in ways we haven’t yet imagined. VR and AR will have a place in news, they advocated, as well as in storytelling, advertising and gaming. Real growth, however, will likely come through adoption by brands, much the way that we can thank Pokémon Go for a great deal of the current public awareness of AR.

A separate session by Kyle Li from Parsons School of Design gave an insight into the next frontiers in designing VR: how can we create smell and other sensory experiences in VR? How can we drive developments in AI and conversational UI to improve interactive experiences? Will we see a future where logical language and speech might replace coding in design and creation to make it more accessible to creators?

The summit showed how designers, developers and storytellers continue to experiment in the space to improve user experience and create compelling content. It is hard to say when, but no doubt there will come a tipping point where consumer VR will start to take off, and brands and publishers will see a concrete case for making serious investment in the space.

Making better use of data with deep learning

A session on deep learning by Rahel Jhirad, Data Scientist at Hearst, and her team showcased how media companies are benefitting from collaborations between super smart people in the industry and super smart people in research.

I am no computer science whiz, but it was evident even to me that advances in deep learning will help folks in the digital industry make better use of the multitude of data at their fingertips. From building algorithms that can match images with text without human-added tags or labels (the project being undertaken at Hearst), making video content more discoverable and searchable, and improving systems for personalizing content, to frontiers we haven’t yet imagined.

The challenges: Before we get too carried away…

Pressing pause on our dreams of a future where technological advances underpin a viable, thriving and valued news media industry, fundamental challenges continue to face the industry as it switches settings from analog to digital. The summit’s keynote speakers brought us back to the reality of journalism and media at this intersection.

A few of the discussion points resonated with me in particular.

How do news publishers, new and traditional, get, and stay, ahead in an ever-changing technological landscape? For Jim Bankoff, Chairman and CEO of Vox Media, passion for subject matter and a focus on quality will win the day, provided publishers remain agile so as to adapt to the changing landscape. On the crucial revenue side, he emphasized seizing opportunities to leverage storytelling expertise for marketing partners, but didn’t offer much beyond publishers’ traditional reliance on advertising.

What will distribution of publisher content look like in years to come? In light of the Pew Research Center’s finding that a majority of US adults get news on social media, what is the proper role of the social media platforms in news distribution given the power they have accumulated?

How does the American news media address the trust deficit it has with the public? Emily Bell, Founding Director of Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, cited a recent NBC/WSJ opinion poll showing that the US public views the news media more favorably than Vladimir Putin, but unfortunately less favorably than just about everything and everyone else. Can the industry harness technological advances to rebuild relationships with audiences?

***

Over the coming weeks, and in collaboration with my good friends at Evoca Media, I’ll be publishing a series of posts diving into key areas that are exciting to us in the digital media sector, so keep an eye out! And hit me up if, like me, you’re excited by what you see.

Huge thanks to the good folks at NYC Media Lab, and all the speakers and demos, for a thought-provoking day.