Reflections of Readings and Guests (#6)

The nexus of all things, and more…

As we have progressed through the course, we have covered many topics and have reflected on them along the way. The first reflection post covered entrepreneurship as problem solving, technology and markets (including audiences), while the second covered law and regulation, fundraising and business models, and leadership. Along the way, we are also narrowing on a business plan. In more recent weeks, the class has explored a new set of topics: branding and marketing, innovation in journalism, and innovations in civic enterprise and government technology. Reflecting on a guest speaker who currently works in media, as well as two readings, one focusing on technology in journalism and the other being big data in political campaigns, give some interesting perspectives, although with some that I do not agree.

Benjamin Cooley was a class guest with a described career and entrepreneurial path that may be considered non-traditional. It could be described as a series of transitions. Mr. Cooley managed music tours and production companies, moving to television production and producing, then to media management. He is currently CEO for the Lenny Letter, the online feminist newsletter by Lena Druhan and Jenni Konner. Mr Cooley gave his life story as a lesson that lead to the creation of Lenny Letter. Mr Cooley’s most important message may have been to be a good person in business, which is key in establishing relationships, his advice from his professor.

In a reading, Leslie Kaufman from the New York Times. “Vox Takes Melding of Journalism and Technology to a New Level” provided an account of Ezra Klein’s creation of Vox has built a new writing infrastructure for journalists and reporters. Their new content management system, called Chorus, is used to publish all websites from Vox. It is characterized as a tool to create more enriched-media experiences. At Vox, software developers refer to themselves as journalists, and partner with reporters and writers to create tools the latter group needs. Interestingly, the New York Times referred to Vox as a digital media site, not a news site. However, Vox has acquired other websites of varying foci, so labeling Vox as a media company may be appropriate if it owns other news and online service sites. Other competing media sites, such as TechCrunch, have also praised Vox’s Chorus.

And finally, How President Obama’s campaign used Big Data to Rally Individual Voters, by Sasha Issenberg in MIT Technology Review, presented the story of President Obama’s 2008 election and 2012 reelection campaigns’ use of big data and other voting data. The campaigns used this data for analysis, determining engagement/outreach, measuring advertising and feedback, and predicting voting behavior likelihood. Although using data in decision making in a general way may not be completely new, its use was fairly new in election campaigns. A contrast is made in the 2012 election, between the Obama and Mitt Romney campaigns. Although the Romney campaign hired a research firm, the Obama campaign built an in-house team and technology, much of it based on the 2008 election.

Mr. Cooley’s presentation was interesting on a personal level since his career journey was an eclectic mix of different professions and experiences. I can relate to his professional path to the Lenny Letter since the road was filled with many experiences that are seemingly unrelated, yet taken together, reflect a current sum of one’s experiences that can be applied to new and potentially exciting ways. I do not state this to shine excessive praise, but to simply relate his narrative to my own.

That being said, I have mixed reactions to Lenny itself and to its business model. I am critical of celebrity projects as they can be considered ego projects that are solely based on the fame of its co-founders. Although this may be an unfair characterization, they can sometimes be a platform for celebrities and may only be based on fame. I also question its value as it provides another opportunity for the privileged to connect to fans to further their own fame or wealth. However in the case of Lenny, and other potential celebrity based publications, fame can be used to address genuine issues, such as the wage gap in Hollywood via Jennifer Lawrence’s piece bringing attention to the wage gap in comparison to her male co-actors. Despite whatever personal misgivings I may have, one cannot ignore the money making potential of celebrity projects that use their fame, connections and resources for new enterprise opportunities. In the case of Lenny, is it a feminist platform, or is it a celebrity empowerment?

The Vox piece describes a new publishing or authoring system that is a revolutionary new tool for journalism and story publishing. Interestingly, the New York Times referred to Vox as a digital media site, not a news site. Of course, in today’s media industry, the differences may be nonexistent. Traditional news companies struggle with longstanding business models that are less applicable in current markets. In turn, these companies may transition into media companies. This may occur via mergers or acquisitions or a change in business model to make them more relevant and profitable. Furthermore, “legacy” companies, such as traditional news, may be replaced by upcoming Vox-es, that are combinations of traditional and new media forms. This may have serious consequences.

The blend of journalism and technology is clear at Vox, their software developers label themselves as “journalists” that work with writers and reports to create tools that are needed. This may be a sign of the future of journalism, where technology and reportage meet. As the relationships of the writer-reporter-developer blur, is there a risk that the technology may become the focal point rather than the content made and presented by the it? It has been become more common to say that “everyone should know how to code”, meaning that everyone should be a programmer in some way. This probably should be true that users of technology should have an overall understanding of the tools that they are using and it is empowering to master and create the tools that one uses, but does one have the time to make the tools and create content for the tools? Does that diminish any part of the content creation and distribution chain?

Big data in political campaigns appears to be a new phenomenon as reported in Issenberg piece. In a way, it is surprising that it look this long to be used since data decision making and analysis had been around previously in the commercial sector. Decision making based on big data is essentially here to stay, and will most likely become more of the norm. As the trend is moving from traditional media to online and targeted media and advertising, the political realm is merely catching up. The immaturity of this space was suggested since the Obama campaign built their own technology, contrasting to the Romney campaign using a data firm. The newcomer (Obama) succeeded in using their tools more effectively and made better data decisions.

Yer, there dangers or concerns in relying too much on data. Although data itself is non-partisan, it can be politicized as with most information. In addition, the results from data are only as sound as the data itself. Data decision making brings up other questions. In the 2016 presidential election, where the apparent candidate’s authenticity is an issue, will campaigns be only about marketing and branding based on a quantified and modeled message, and less about issues and policies? Will data decision making affect a candidate’s authenticity when campaign ads and possibly other decisions are based on quantifiable results and modeling? Issenberg had shown that the voter was quantified to surprising accuracy. Yet, is a quantified voter a good thing, where a voter is a consumer that can be targeted, analyzed and influenced?

Despite my criticisms of Mr. Cooley and Lenny, much of his work could be supported by a previous guest speaker, Morra Aarons Mele, a experienced marketer and founder of a small marketing firm. She showcased a methodology for entrepreneurship, and included a process of marketing and brand development to audience analysis and networking. Ms. Mele mentioned a few pieces of advice, chiefly: align with significant players and know what motivates oneself. Mr. Cooley’s experiences appear to be an example of both. However, he was brought on to Lenny by his ex-wife, so this “alignment” may be more by default.

As the current or previous business model of the printed news industry appears to be in decline, the article, “The Leaked New York Times Innovation Report is one of the Key Documents of this Media Age” from Nieman Journalism Lab has demonstrated that newspapers, such as the New York Times have to address the digital aspect of the industry. Elements that the Times needs to address are what some of its competitors are doing, notably Vox. For the Times, they need a new culture and infrastructure to deal with new media and new technologies.

The TED talks featuring Jennifer Pahlka and Clay Shirky both address technology in government. Although not exclusively “big data”, they both suggest that technology and the Internet can have a positive effect on government. I have little doubt on this issue. While the Obama campaigns used data for decision making, data in the hands of public, and especially among voters, has the potential to hold the government, and candidates for government, accountable to the people. More information and open data can bring more awareness, and a more educated public can hold their government and its leaders accountable.

I have taken many elements of this class seriously, and hopefully not taking it too much so. To say that Ben Cooley’s experience resonated with me sounds like a cliche. But his appearance does reinforce the idea that being well liked in business is not only the “right thing” to do, but can work in one’s favor. This does appear to be true, as I found many of my jobs because I was “liked”. Furthermore, in job interviews, being liked is important as it can be presented as a sign that one will work well within an organization, can be trusted, and may make you memorable. Mr. Cooley’s experience demonstrates that a non-traditional path to one’s career can also be a realistic path. However, I do have concerns that some of his path was already established by his marital relationship, which is not a typical opportunity. This was furthered by Ms. Mele’s comments about connecting with people in power, it is all about who you know.

In reading and writing on Vox and the New York Times, they are stories of the new and the old. Technology seems as it is the key for the ability to create tools and opportunities. These tools will allow stories to be told in new ways, and give readers new ways to engage. This appears to be parts of the new frontier. In the political and governmental space, I see potential opportunities in the nexus where data, technology, and government intersect. Although my project is in education, I find that the next will involve government, and perhaps all these elements can be combined into the next venture.

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