To save independent journalism, media must embrace web3 innovation

As the innovation budgets for Big Tech platforms and content giants like Meta, Alphabet, Microsoft, Disney and Netflix have soared amid the ascent of web3 and metaverse, news media is currently hibernating when it comes to innovation. This leads us to a critical question: Is journalistic news media missing a huge opportunity in having a concrete role in shaping emerging digital ecosystems?

Do news media organizations choose to optimize for the short-term (again) at the expense of long-term success? Has the pace of innovation really slowed down or even come to a halt? Three revealing exhibits:

First, the Oxford Reuters Institute’s recent trend report points out that news media organizations around the world are now focusing on tinkering and optimizing instead of making big bets on innovation or R&D. As the study reveals, most news media organizations aren’t actively focusing on experimenting with new technologies or launching new products for emerging platforms. Podcasts, newsletters and video, that’s all folks – for 2022, at least.

Second, the biggest public splash in news media innovation was recently made by “the Smiths” – Ben Smith of The New York Times and formerly BuzzFeed News, and Justin Smith, the CEO of Bloomberg Media. They aim to build a global newsroom that will experiment with “new formats of storytelling.” Anita Zielina and Isabelle Roughol provided great analysis on the challenges of the target market and the need for the “globally literate media.” And Clare Malone tried to get a whiff of the new product itself. All in all, the Smiths’ intentions were widely commented on, but their concrete thoughts on innovation were thin.

Third, misinformation is spreading in social media platforms, continuously weakening trust in established legacy institutions. For too many, the last U.S. presidential election is still stolen. For a great number of people, COVID is a non-issue shrouded in conspiracy theories.

Democracy itself is at risk when people don’t share the same baseline reality, and news media hasn’t been able to change this development. Fact-checking innovations, despite their importance, don’t help at scale when people can’t agree on what constitutes a fact in the first place.

In short, when the rest of the digital ecosystem is moving very quickly, news media is bound to fail if it can’t keep up.

AI, web3 and metaverse

There’s been a lot of talk about journalism and artificial intelligence (AI). Importantly, news organizations have been concretely working on a wide variety of AI solutions, from content recommendation and moderation to advanced analytics, deep-fake detection and optimizing subscription pipelines.

But have we seen anything truly disruptive and transformative yet? Something that will really move the needle for news organizations in the longer run, giving them a business advantage in the digital information ecosystem?

Today, content recommendation should be a basic feature, not a spearhead of the current innovation efforts.

Adoption of AI technologies is still slow in the field partly due to the high cost of development. Additionally, news media needs more use cases and business cases for AI that have been born out of pure journalistic thinking and need.

What about web3 and metaverse, and their combination? So far, news organizations haven’t actively explored or developed solutions for these emerging digital ecosystems. Yes, there is a lot of hype and misconception related to both, but it doesn’t mean that web3 and metaverse won’t become “the next big thing.”

In fact, there exists a great window of opportunity for news organizations. As both web3 and the metaverse — as concepts and as technological stacks — are still in flux, news media can actually affect how they are shaped now and in the future.

What should news media do?

News media should participate actively in the conversation and development of web3 and metaverse as soon as possible with concrete ideas and solutions. News media should start collaborating with people in this space and leverage all the concrete lessons from AI and machine learning in taking an active role in this new frontier.

Below are some ideas for the future iteration:

Rethink content

It’s still all around articles, more or less. Yes, podcasts are now the gold standard for news innovation. Real-time live feeds have been reinvented for some news sites (after giving real-time away to Twitter, for example). But what does creating content mean and look like in the web3 era or in the metaverse? What’s the look and feel for next-generation news media content in these environments?

In content creation, some of the basic building blocks need to be rethought. What’s the news media’s content creation process (or content management system) for metaverse? Can NFT-type thinking and blockchain technologies be embedded in visualized storytelling or collaborative creation of news content?

I’ve written before about personalized news media content. There’s already been interesting experimentation with the help of AI around modular journalistic content and news summarization that could provide new tools for content personalization. At the same time, it’s in the best interest of news media organizations to figure out how trustworthy content is created in web3 (and metaverse) environments. Can trust and trustworthiness be coded into the very content and their representations?

Web3 technologies offer new possibilities for creating exclusive personalized content experiences, but they might also offer new tools for content verification and fact-checking. For example, the trustworthiness and credibility of given news content could be evaluated through transparent and traceable analysis, using already verified and trusted information stored in the blockchain.

Content verification would become an open-sourced and decentralized process rather than depending on a single authority. In the process, the facts constituting the baseline reality would be checked and, if needed, iterated collectively.

Rethink distribution

In the field of news media, the adoption of personalized content recommendations has been slow and uneven. Today, content recommendation should be a basic feature, not a spearhead of the current innovation efforts.

Again, there are crucial questions to be explored and answered in rethinking distribution for news media. What is the interface for news in a digital ecosystem that’s not tied into the rectangular thing you carry around in your pocket? (Tip: Voice interface doesn’t count as an answer here.)

With web3 solutions, people can have (and might be able to create) their own interfaces for news. Personalization gets a new dimension when the agency is transferred to users.

Also, social graphs, relevance graphs and interest graphs are owned by the current tech giants and used to personalize user interfaces such as news feeds, video streams or search results. What if news media focused on impact in personalization? In the age of climate change and a global healthcare crisis, news media could offer a personalized view to information based on impact graphs instead of interest or social graphs.

News content would be weighted and ranked based on its impact on different areas of life. Web3 ecosystems could even be used to make the impact analysis and ranking community-driven. Thus, news could be recommended and prioritized based on the impact on the things the user considers valuable, or things that might have a direct effect on the user. If you’re interested in following news affecting climate change or healthcare, for example, news about things and events that have a greater impact on climate change or healthcare would be prioritized in recommendations.

Rethink business and monetization

Until today, the main question for news media has been: Are we in the ad business or subscription business? In the wake of web3 and metaverse, the question is: Who is actively looking into new business opportunities in these emerging ecosystems?

Web3 is likely to change the content and data ownership. What are the marketplaces for trustworthy news experiences in a potentially more decentralized digital ecosystem? What if people could invest in news content or news media organizations through DAOs, or as individuals using blockchain? Also, can the monetization be somehow rethought: Could there be transactions based on impact? The higher the impact on you or your personally selected interest area, the higher the purchase price for the news content.

Of course, web3 or metaverse aren’t guaranteed bets, nor do they offer any silver bullets for the business of journalistic news media. However, they both represent a recognized path for technological development that will have a significant impact on our cultural, social, economic and political realities.

Innovation doesn’t need to mean one-off showcases with bells and whistles, but long-term strategic investment in future methods, technologies and ecosystems. The mission of independent news media should guide all new innovations and their prioritization.

I strongly suggest that independent news media start injecting their mission, values and business cases in exploring and creating new, concrete solutions for web3 and metaverse. Who shall lead the way?

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