2021 Session Reports

Friday, October 22, 2021

Innovations in Augmented Reality and the Future of Interactive Journalism at USA TODAY, Ray Soto, USA TODAY

The future of journalism is immersive, interactive and 3-D

By Madison McVan, Investigate Midwest

The way we use cell phones hasn’t changed meaningfully in more than a decade, but augmented reality may soon shift how readers interact with the news on their mobile devices.

Ray Soto, director of emerging technology for USA TODAY, works with journalists and developers to create immersive augmented reality news stories. His team’s projects include interactive experiences of the 1619 Project, the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. 

Augmented reality brings interactive elements to the user’s environment. Pokemon Go, for example, taught millions of people how to interact with augmented reality technology. 

The keys to keeping viewers engaged in the stories are visuals, interactivity, sound and pacing. If developers don’t use these elements correctly, the viewer may get lost and close out of the story, he said. 

The pandemic boosted engagement with augmented reality experiences, delivered via USA TODAY mobile applications. Soto attributes this in part to the timeliness and necessity of the team’s coronavirus project, but also to the audience’s growing familiarity with augmented reality. 

Soto emphasized the importance of collaboration between developers and journalists to create an experience that feels like a museum exhibit — as engaging as it is accurate.

Community Media Storytelling, Mitra Kalita, URL Media

How to become the “glue of our communities”

By Amanda Perez Pintado, Investigate Midwest/Report for America

As the pandemic tore through New York City, once the epicenter of the coronavirus in the U.S., Epicenter-NYC was born in the summer of 2020 as a newsletter to connect neighbors and answer their questions about the virus. 

The community journalism initiative put aside a digital-first approach and opted for “looking to the crowd” as a way to respond to the community’s needs, said S. Mitra Kalita, founder and publisher of Epicenter-NYC. 

Through a volunteer-led effort, Epicenter-NYC has been able to help neighbors get vaccinated by scheduling thousands of appointments. To make this possible, volunteers needed to leverage technology to help people who are not digitally connected. 

“In some cases, we will have four volunteers booking at the same time in order for a couple to be booked in the same location because they might be disabled or have transportation issues or language barriers,” Kalita said.

In addition to the newsletter, Epicenter-NYC now publishes articles, hosts regular livestreams and runs a weekly podcast. 

Through the Queens-based initiative, Kalita has rethought how journalists relate to communities. 

“How do we become the glue of our communities?” she reflected.

If the Machines Come for You, Will It Help? Will AI and Automation Aid News Organizations Or Eliminate Journalists?, Jeremy Gilbert, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University

Thinking of artificial intelligence in ‘general’ and ‘narrow’ terms

By Ignacio Calderon, USA TODAY Network Agriculture Data Fellow, Investigate Midwest 

Jeremy Gilbert from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University challenged the perspective of what artificial intelligence actually is and how technology affects journalism. 

Gilbert said AI can be grouped into two categories: general and narrow. 

General AI is the type of technology that is associated with robots that can perform a variety of tasks while operating with little human instruction. Although this technology could have immense potential impacts beyond journalism, it is largely not available at the moment. 

On the other hand, the other type of AI, narrow, has already been part of newsroom workflows. But because it performs only specific tasks such as spell-checking or audio transcription, people don’t tend to think of it as artificial intelligence. 

While many might be worried about automation taking over jobs, Gilbert said over the last century, other types of technology, such as radio, television, personal computers and smartphones, have each disrupted the industry before. 

Gilbert explained how the Washington Post has been using AI tools to improve the creation, consumption, distribution and monetization of its content. It includes everything from creating “living stories” for election coverage that update themselves based on new data to tailoring content and advertising based on user online behavior and location.

TikTok for Journalism, Julia Munslow, Yahoo! News

Don’t be afraid of TikTok

By Madison McVan, Investigate Midwest

Yahoo! News posted its first TikTok on Super Tuesday in March 2020. Election-related content quickly gave way to coronavirus information and other news content, and less than a year later, the account had more than 1 million followers.

Julia Munslow, special projects editor at Yahoo! News, launched the TikTok account hoping to reach a younger, more diverse audience and to shift the brand’s perception. 

Explanatory videos and news-you-can-use, especially surrounding elections and the coronavirus pandemic, drove the accounts initial growth. Today, breaking news is also an important component of the account’s content, Munslow said. 

Using TikTok’s built-in features, responding to comments and jumping on jokes and trends when appropriate build trust and loyalty with the app’s users. This can be intimidating for newsroom leaders who “don’t speak the language” of TikTok, Munslow said. But both the app itself and the audience reward experimentation and good-faith engagement. 

Munslow also noted that the active comments section of TikToks and the option for users to remain anonymous can lead to abusive and hateful comments towards newsroom employees, especially those who aren’t used to being on camera. Newsrooms should have resources and procedures in place to support those responsible for comment moderation and video creation. 

TikToks should be in line with the news organization’s mission statement and strategy, and leaders may need to reevaluate definitions of “success” on the platform, as TikTok views rarely translate to link clicks.

Newsrooms should trust that Gen Z wants to understand what’s happening in the world, and meeting them where they’re at — on TikTok — is one way news organizations can build trust with younger audiences.

Mobile Witnessing Turns 30, Allissa Richardson, USC Annenberg

What We’ve Learned Since Rodney King

By Johnathan Hettinger, Investigate Midwest

Videos of incidents, such as the murder of George Floyd by Minneosta Police Office Derek Chauvin, have become critical in telling stories of police accountability and other incidents of injustice. This type of footage, called mobile witnessing, has brought the injustices faced by many communities to many audiences that had never experienced it, opening many eyes.

But what obligation do journalists have when using that footage and telling that story? And what do we owe the communities that are experiencing those profound injustices?
Journalists have an obligation to believe the footage that they’re shown, and to empower the communities that are telling the story, said Allissa Richardson, a professor of journalism and communication at the University of Southern California.
They also should be sensitive about the power and weight of the footage, and the effect this footage can have on audiences. Journalists should not overuse mobile videos of traumatic events just because it exists.
Now that footage like these has become widespread, it has helped change the world, leading to the Black Lives Matter movement and affecting real change, Richardson said.

But does that mean that audiences will become more used to seeing these videos? Or will it lead to journalists being more likely to believe marginalized communities’ stories and help elevate the issues they face?

That question remains to be answered.

Voice technology and Smart Speakers, Tony Elkins, Gannett

Keeping the audience in mind

By Johnathan Hettinger, Investigate Midwest

When thinking about products, journalists should keep the audience in mind, said Tony Elkins, senior director for content innovation at Gannett.

As technology companies have swept the world, they have one goal with their products: to make the customer happy. Journalists should learn from that, knowing that the stories they tell only have power if they reach people, he said.

Elkins has led the development of Bytecast, a tool used to quickly capture audio for news products and turn it into audio stories. The app has benefited from a lot of heavy research into both audiences and users to create an easy-to-use workflow for making audio stories.

Elkins said this research was critical because if it’s not easy to use an app, journalists will disregard it, and if it’s not easy to listen to, audiences will disregard audio in general.

The future of audio is more than just podcasts. Many people use smart voice assistants like Siri or Alexa. Audio is convenient for users, and journalists who wish to make a difference should go to where their audiences are, he said.

Podcasting, Rick Alloway and Kaci Richter, College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

By Sky Chadde, Investigate Midwest

Podcasts have exploded in popularity in recent years — since 2018, the audience has increased by 40% — but the COVID-19 pandemic has led to even more listeners.

While many might listen to podcasts in the car, listening at-home actually drove growth during the pandemic, said Kaci Richter, an assistant professor at the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. This happened because many people were able to work from home.

The uptick in podcast listening came in the age groups advertisers love — 18 to 34-year-olds. However, consumption of podcasts is much higher than advertising spending, Richter said.

Podcasts can be varying lengths and types, such as serialized or episodic. Either way, the content should drive what the podcast is. Also, who your target audience is also very important. For instance, if you want to create a podcast that people listen to on their commute home, and the commute is shorter than 30 minutes, do not create a 30-minute podcast.

One of Richter’s tips was to treat podcasting like a job, not a side hustle. Also, she recommended publishing early in the day and publishing on either Tuesday or Wednesday because those are the best days for downloads.

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Immersive XR for Mobile Storytelling, Dan Pacheco, Syracuse University

Escaping the rectangle of the browser

By Madison McVan, Investigate Midwest

Over the last five years, virtual and augmented reality technology has become increasingly sophisticated and affordable, and journalists now have fewer excuses to not use XR elements in their stories, said Dan Pacheco, the Peter A. Horvitz Chair of Journalism Innovation at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University.

News organizations can experiment with XR — a catch-all acronym for augmented, virtual and mixed reality — using free and open-source tools, he said.

After 20 years in digital publishing, Pacheco co-produced Harvest of Change in 2014, the first large-scale virtual reality project by a commercial news organization. 

Humans are 3D creatures living in a 3D world, but all of our media is stuck in 2D, and Pacheco thinks 3D media will take over in the next 10 to 20 years. Anywhere journalists have access to spaces that readers don’t, news organizations can use XR to transport their audience into the story. 

News organizations should start experimenting with XR techniques now, Pacheco said, using accessible tools like Aframe, Google Model-Viewer and 3D photos. 

Evolving products at News Organizations, Coleen O’Lear and Bailey Kattleman, Washington Post, and Ryan Restivo, Newsday

Finding ways to innovate and experiment on a budget

By Madison McVan, Investigate Midwest

Developing news products is an exercise in goal-setting, communicating and managing resources. From the smallest to the largest news organizations, project managers have to find ways to innovate and experiment with finite resources. 

That was the central message from a panel consisting of Coleen O’Lear, head of mobile strategy for the Washington Post; Bailey Kattleman, lead product manager of native apps for the Washington Post; and Ryan Restivo, product manager for mobile apps at Newsday. 

Kattleman emphasized the importance of setting goals and constantly evaluating progress against them. Metrics alone often don’t tell the whole story, especially because the news cycle affects the way audiences interact with news products, so measures of success should go beyond user data. 

Communication about news products is important both within the news organization and to audiences, O’Lear said. Explaining the “why” behind a feature not only helps with buy-in from leaders and colleagues but also informs readers about the reasoning behind a change in their experience. 

People from all kinds of backgrounds can be successful project managers by leaning into their strengths and points of view, Restivo said. Being able to prioritize requests and find the simplest solution to a problem are key skills for someone in his position. 

And, when it comes to innovation and experimentation for smaller news organizations, O’Lear suggests leaning into the strengths of existing employees, and finding small ways to play with presentation and platforms based on reporters’ and editors’ interest and skills.

Geolocation and the Media: From Challenges to Opportunities and Beyond, Amy Schmitz Weiss, San Diego State University

While understanding the need for privacy, newsrooms can use geolocation to serve their communities

By Ignacio Calderon, USA TODAY Network Agriculture Data Fellow, Investigate Midwest 

Amy Schmitz Weiss, professor in the school of journalism and media studies at San Diego State University, discussed how geolocation has brought some new vulnerabilities to people’s privacy, but, if used right, it can help communities and their newsrooms. 

Although geolocation can help you find nearby restaurants or navigate to a different location, it can also be used to identify or track a person’s location with or without their knowledge, leading to privacy concerns. 

But beyond this, geolocation presents many opportunities to users, such as getting information and resources in moments of disasters. This could include where shelters are during a tornado. 

A case study conducted by Weiss found that 84% of surveyed residents in Austin and Brooklyn like to get news about a location important to them. These residents were also more engaged with their local news media and consumed its content more frequently. 

COVID-19 dashboards showing locations of hotspots have made it clear that the trend of readers seeking out information relevant to their location will only increase, Weiss said. Newsrooms can use this to further connect and build trust with their audience. 

Texting With the Audience, David Cohn, Advance Digital

Texting provides newsrooms a healthier, troll-free form of communication with audiences

By Amanda Perez Pintado, Investigate Midwest/Report for America

As newsrooms look for ways to reach audiences, text messaging presents an opportunity to journalists and media outlets to create real connections with readers, said David Cohn, senior director at Advance Digital and co-founder of Subtext. 

Launched in 2019, Subtext is a platform that allows media outlets, such as Buzzfeed and Gannett, to connect with audiences via SMS text messaging. 

Texting, Cohn explained, offers more privacy and immediacy compared to social media, leading to a healthier and troll-free experience. He also pointed out that not everyone is on social media.   

“Text is one of the few mediums that is still pure communication,” Cohn said, pointing out that there are no algorithms in the way like on social media. 

News outlets have used mass texting to reach audiences during emergencies, such as Hurricane Ida. Amid the storm, both USA TODAY and NOLA.com were texting over 20,000 people crucial information, Cohn said. 

During emergencies, text is particularly valuable because it allows for direct communication from readers, who can specify the type of information they need. But outlets also use texting for breaking news and beat reporting. 

In terms of revenue opportunities, outlets can offer a subscription to readers, send sponsored messages, or drive digital subscriptions through text campaigns.

Drone Journalism, Matt Waite, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Drone journalism has come a long way in the last decade, but technology and climate change present more opportunities for newsrooms

By Ignacio Calderon, Investigate Midwest

Matt Waite, from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, discussed the history of drone use and what the future awaits. 

About 10 years ago, Waite got the opportunity to experiment with drones. At the time, government regulation was non-existent and the commercial market was limited. As Waite started using them to get video footage, he saw a great opportunity for journalists. 

However, a cease and desist letter from the Federal Aviation Administration in 2013 led him on a three-year journey to get a license, as the regulation around drone use was just taking off. After successfully completing the requirements, he began drone boot camps across the country in 2016, educating more than 800 people.

From getting hurricane footage that shows their destruction, to the food lines during the pandemic, drones have become essential to large newsrooms. Although Waite’s prediction about the widespread use of drones has already become true, he also explained potential uses in the future such as in 3D modeling and virtual reality applications. 

Waite said money and time can be great barriers for some newsrooms to enter this space, but for some reporters, like those interested in documenting climate change in the long term, it might be worth the investment.

Quick and Easy Research to Learn About your Audience, Damon Kiesow, University of Missouri

Using ‘human-centered design’

By Amanda Perez Pintado, Investigate Midwest/Report for America

How do we make business decisions that serve journalism? 

Damon Kiesow, Knight Chair in Digital Editing and Producing at the Missouri School of Journalism, posed this question as he discussed using a human-centered design approach to news products. 

Human-centered design (HCD), Kiesow explained, puts readers first by aiming to identify problems and solutions based on audience needs and insights. 

Some HCD research methods include brainstorming, card sorting and surveys. Brainstorming and card sorting involve developing a large volume of ideas and can be used for any question. 

Meanwhile, surveys include questions to be sent to current and potential readers, and they must be carefully designed to generate useful information. A survey’s goal should be to get close to the “root cause” of the question posed. 

Deciding what method to use, Kiesow said, depends on factors such as what question you’re trying to answer. 

Researching to learn about audiences allows newsrooms to better serve readers and improve products.