‘Media-Nxt’: How Local News Can Finally Enter Its Digital 21st Century

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The 21st century is almost 18 years old, but in crucial ways most of those years have passed right by the local news industry. It’s not that the industry remains that stuck in its print past. It knows it must innovate for its paramount goal — to build richer relationships with its readers. It knows doing so will help readers enjoy better lives and become better citizens. It knows too that if it sets all this in motion, it will prosper and, in the process, fulfill its constitutionally protected role as a guardian of democracy.

But knowing is not necessarily doing, especially when it comes to innovation. Technology has produced many potentially effective ways for the local news industry to connect more deeply with its readers. But go to any local news sites, entrepreneurial or corporate, ones operated by newspapers or “pure-plays,” and you won’t see much connecting that leaps off the page. Both readers and the industry are paying the price.

The newly published report “Media-Nxt” wants to help the local news industry not only to know what it should do, but also actually start doing it. Its main authors are the students in Sean Branagan’s Trendspotting in Digital Media course in Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Branagan, founder of the school’s Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur, interactive marketer, educator and evangelist for innovation and startups.” In this Q & A, he tells why new technology is so hard for the local news industry to adopt – but why it should and must:

What’s the first thing you tell your students about innovation?
I tell them they need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. I know that’s probably easier for young students, but the truth is, this is even more important for established organizations. This is where the innovation happens.

Your students wrote the report. How did they become so conversant with leading-edge technologies that might befuddle an experienced reporter, editor or even publisher?
The Trendspotting in Digital Media class is structured to be a conversation. I start the class off by telling everyone to be fearless and curious. They don’t need to know and understand technology.

But before we really dive into the heavy conversations, we spend five or six weeks learning how to look at the future with a framework from the work of Edward Cornish, founder of The Future Society and author of our textbook: “Futuring: The Exploration of the Future.”

The answer is: 1) I have them for a whole semester, 2) I try to play “a guide on the side, versus the sage on the stage,” 3) I bring in great speakers — especially younger ones and professionals in technology roles and companies who come from the media — to show them what is possible and 4) PRACTICE. PRACTICE. PRACTICE.

You say “virtuality” technologies will create new kinds of storytelling and engagement” and increase “human interaction, feeling and immersion.” Aren’t these the various things that are so often missing in local news today?
Yes. I see lots of possibilities for all the virtuality technologies. The whole point of these technologies is to ADD to the story by making a viewer FEEL…feel like they are there, feel closer to the subject, feel emotion, and with some of the newer haptics and other peripherals, have a virtual, physical feeling.

Should local media outlets get into virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR)? Yes. But I still have reservations with all these new storytelling platforms: I don’t see a new business model to support many of them yet, and I’m not convinced the social and cultural elements support this being a big, pervasive deal… .Yet. I would love to be wrong

These technologies don’t sound as if they come cheap. Can a single independent “pure-play” local news site adopt them without going broke?
The simple answer is “Yes.” A smaller local news site can do it. Actually, almost all the really cool innovations come from smaller teams.

In our premium version of “Media-Nxt,” we list more than 30 startups who are working in these technologies. f you’re a local news provider, contact these startups and say you want to do a project, and you want to move fast. Speed is catnip for startups. They will show up on your doorstep the next morning… and they will probably do it for free!

The big newspaper chains have the resources, but they’ve been slow to adopt what’s already available, like messaging apps. Do you expect them to plunge into these virtuality technologies with any more sense of innovative commitment?
Let me tell you a story from the classroom. Without naming the company, we had executives from an innovative media outlet come and talk to our students. They politely and enthusiastically answered questions about VR/AR.

Then someone asked if this outlet was going to offer VR and AR. The executive asked for a show of hands: “How many of you are working on creating VR and AR stories?” Tons of student hands went up (unlike in many newsrooms). “Great!” he said. “That’s amazing!” Then he asked: “Who has watched a full-length VR film or show… other than your own or your friends’ creations?” Only a few hands went up. “That’s my answer,” the executive said. “When that is reversed, THEN we will offer VR and AR on our site.”

One tool featured in Media-Nxt is “conversational user interfaces.”  How do they help engage users?
Now is the time for local news sites to get in the game with one or more of the big players like Apple with Siri, Microsoft with Cortana and Amazon with Alexa and help them sort this out… thinking big and how it will sustain the importance of local news outlets in this emerging world.

One example could be: “Hey, Siri, what are the top news stories?” “I can tell you international, national or local news. Which do you want, Sean?” “Give me a rundown of all of them, and tell me what are the big local stories.” At one point, Siri might pause and ask: “Do you want me to tell you how this national news item will affect you in Hometown, Sean?” “Sure. Go ahead.”

We’ve been hearing since the early years of the aught decade that technology was El Dorado for local news. But this news, which is so close to home for everybody, gets fewer and fewer resources from most providers and is gradually being abandoned by hometown advertisers, who increasingly turn to Facebook for their messaging. Will Media-Nxt help rewrite this story?
That’s why we created Media-Nxt at Newhouse. The overall project is aimed at helping media companies become more like technology companies. We need to shape our future. We need to be innovative, move quickly, explore opportunities and change the culture — and secure our future.

I would not recommend that media companies adopt all of these technologies. I would recommend that they start considering all of these innovations and trying to find ways to embrace, integrate, leverage and utilize them.

Some should be more important and useful to their operation, community, and strategic direction. Focus on those. That’s why we name startups. These small group of innovators are anxious to work on interesting projects. They want real data, real situations, real consumers.


Newhouse’s Aileen Gallagher, an assistant professor in the school’s magazine department and a former senior editor of the New York Times Magazine online, “helped determine the structure of the report and worked with students to distill the essence of the technology and identify its applications,” Branagan said.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.