Tech meets Journalism

This is a recap of Connect Toronto, an event of immersive experiences for journalists, engineers, designers, and businesspeople. September 23–24, 2016.

Do you know about the state of Canadian journalism?
It’s not going well.

Many newsrooms downsized or closed entirely over the last years. The remaining ones were bought by a few big players, which led to an unhealthy corporate concentration. And somehow the transformation to the digital age didn’t really happen. So, it doesn’t look good. If you ask a room full of journalists and tech people:

Who of you thinks the future will be a better place?
All techies are like:

And then you ask: And who thinks the future will be worse?
All journalists are like:

Of course that is exaggerated, but the tendency seems about right. I hear many writers claiming social media to be the enemy, and our generation as lost, because we do read 23-reasons-why-lists, do play computer games, and there are trends going on on youtube, where one can wonder… but in general modern technology and the Internet offer so many great opportunities and perspectives, that when you are in tech, you’re generally very excited about what’s possible.

WHY SHOULD THERE BE A ROOM FULL OF TECHIES AND JOURNALISTS THAT YOU ASK ABOUT THE FUTURE?

Last weekend in Toronto, there was such a room. And HacksHackers was behind all that. Their mission is to create a network of journalists (“hacks”) and technologists (“hackers”) who rethink the future of news and information. There are around 60 local groups all over the world — from Atlanta to Zürich — and it’s growing. In Canada there are groups in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, and Halifax. And once in a while they huddle together at their launchpad event series for news-media entrepreneurs called Connect, to discuss and work on the future of journalism.
So last weekend that was in Toronto. More than 100 people from all over Canada came together. Writers and Reporters, Engineers and Techies, Entrepreneurs, Business Folks, and Designers or UXers.

The two days were packed with workshops, presentations, lunch conversations, one-on-ones, and networking. The fresh folks from VICE and BuzzFeed were there, Globe & Mail, and Toronto Star reporters, engaged local newspaper rebels, magazine publishers, editors, journalism school professors and alumni, entrepreneurs, and Google’s News Lab representatives. Here’s my BuzzFeed style list of:

7 HIGHLIGHTS AND TAKEAWAYS

IF IT’S BORING, LET A BOT DO IT FOR YOU

Naël Shiab, data journalist at Magazine L’actualité held a workshop on how automation can facilitate many things. So, for example, instead of tediously gathering information from different sources in one large spreadsheet — write a bot that does it for you. Instead of setting an alarm clock to regularly tweet the latest headlines — let a bot just fire the tweets for you. Anything where you might think: This is boring and annoying work, I would much rather spend my time on something more valuable! This might be the signal for you to think: Maybe I should write a bot for that. Well, but some coding experience is certainly required for that. One of Naël’s bots also wrote this (French) article about how bots will replace us all pretty soon: Allez-vous être remplacé par un robot? Demandez-le à… notre robot!

NO NEWS IS BAD NEWS

Ian Gill, former reporter at the Vancouver Sun and CBC, now social entrepreneur, columnist for The Tyee, president of Discourse Media and author of “No News Is Bad News” stood an AMA (Ask me Anything) about where he sees the future of journalism headed. His book has it all in detail if you are curious. But, spoiler: Most Canadian local newspapers don’t get off cheaply. To use a tech analogy from the book: We’ve clung for so long to dinosaur media-business models that while pretty much everybody else in the developed world is driving the journalistic version of a Tesla these days, here we are all crammed into a second-hand Edsel, wondering if we can afford snow tires. But then, it seems, there is hope. There are alternative models on how journalism can continue living. One that was mentioned frequently was the Dutch De Correspondent. They crowdfunded and raised over 1 million Euro in just over a week. Also he advocates the idea of using tech to engage the readers in journalism — so there we go: a positive future is possible.

COLLABORATION NECESSARY

Not a new concept. But it’s so easy to ignore it when we are caught up in our own little bubble. But if you wanna do cool stuff, you probably can’t do it alone. So, have your network, and use it. Know the IT guys, know the interns who code in their spare time, go to meetups where people are excited about creative technology, and don’t be afraid to reach out to people. Most people are happy to help — and if they are not — asking should not have hurt anybody.

LEARN CODING — AT LEAST A BIT

When working on a cool interactive, data-heavy multimedia project you certainly need to have a team with different skill sets. As the reporter you are probably not the programmer, but: it is very beneficial to have a basic understanding of code. First that makes all the stuff look less like magic, and second: if there is a Typo to fix, you know which csv file to open and don’t have to call the IT support to do it for you. (There are one thousand more reasons, but you can learn about them somewhere else or let Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and friends explain it to you.)

KNOW THE STATS, BUT DON’T CARE TOO MUCH

As in all businesses it is important to know your audience. When you’re writing you should have in mind whom you are writing for. And when you publish your article you should use the right channels to reach that audience. And then you should use analytics to see if you succeeded. But: you should not only write to satisfy the desire of your readers. If you think you have an important thing to write about — do it. Again and again and eventually it might hit some nerve and the readers start reading it all. One VICE editor said: “You can’t have a reporter get worried about clicks or reads or monetization. Let journalists be journalists regardless of all that“.

PHILANTHROPY TO THE RESCUE

People are consuming their news online now and aren’t too willing to pay for it anymore. That’s a problem. And there is not one solution to solve that but many different approaches. Crowdsourcing came up several times, paywalls, and Philanthropy — who knew. There are several outlets already where big parts of the money come from generous donations of philanthropists. Much so in the U.S., but also in Canada The Walrus for example is published by a charitable foundation. Here’s a good read from the Globe and Mail, about that topic, not leaving out some concerns with that concept.

IT’S ON US

The whole event was very interactive and everybody was encouraged to weigh in at any time — the mantra being: If you don’t like something — change it. It was more in the sense of: If you can’t hear the speaker, come to the front or turn off the fan that’s blowing right behind you, or if you think somebody is taking up too much speaking time without saying anything — you can let them know, in a respectful constructive way. In a broader sense though, I think that sentence sums it all up pretty well. If you see something heading in a direction you think is wrong, don’t wait for somebody else to fix it — it’s on each one of us. The future is not headed in one direction, but it’s on us to shape it.

Now if you’re a techie and curious about what’s going on in today’s journalism landscape, right on! Remember? It’s on us to change things for the better. So how can you start? Check out those links and off we go! (There might be a slight bias towards Canada’s West coast)

7 LINKS TO GET YOU STARTED

HACKSHACKERS

Check out if there is a chapter in your city too. And if so, join it! If not, you could think about starting one.

THE TYEE

Vancouver based independent newsroom that swims “upstream against the media trends of our day. […] We, like the tyee salmon for which we’re named, roam free and go where we wish” [from Our story].

CANADALAND

News site and podcasts by Jesse Brown. Taking a rather critical view on Canada’s media landscape. “Jesse Brown is a smug, loud-mouthed, know-it-all who is easy to dislike” writes his friend Corey Mintz from the Toronto Star.

DISCOURSE MEDIA

An independent media company in Vancouver. They tell in-depth stories, using new media in innovative ways. You should definitely check out their projects.

THE JOURNALISTIC LANDSCAPE IN 2025

The Dutch Journalism Fund (Stimuleringfonds voor de Journalistiek) thought about what will journalism look like in 2025 and put together four potential scenarios. Radical + Do It Yourself. Radical + Do It For Me. Reluctance + Do It Yourself. Reluctance + Do It For Me.

NYT INNOVATION REPORT

Buzzfeed has a nice summary about the internal New York Times “Innovation Report” that was originally only thought to be for the newsroom management to give an idea about where the The Times was in its digital transformation. But then it made it’s way out there. That’s the full 97 pages as PDF if you wanna have it all.

ABOUT 100 MORE LINKS

Ha, sneakily this list will end with another list. 100 more links! Put together by Phillip Smith, one of the HacksHackers’ organizers. He asked the community and created a huuuge assortment of Canadian Media Innovations.