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Conversation with Mary Ruddy [M] and Adam Powell [A] 4-4:50 pm EDT

What are you most passionate about, professionally?

  • M: I am very passionate about some of the things Bill Densmore has been writing about:

protecting privacy, systems that act on behalf of the user - user-centric rather than silos and walled gardens. Now that the advertising model doesn't work, much will be lost. Twitter, Facebook are not the same thing as media. My interest is in leveraging my expertise on software systems that are data-driven to deliver customized content. And now this is emerging as news 3.0.

  • A: From an Africa report I am now finishing, issues of migration to cell phones and other small devices in a fragmented environment. As Africa becomes majority urban in the next 20 years, through migration to cities accompanied by the most rapid population increase ever recorded in human history, it is also moving to mobile devices as a primary medium. What can journalism do? Local is key: the explosion I just heard, my child has a fever. That, and participation: using SMS and other low-cost or free messages to monitor elections and refugee camps. Ushahidi is perhaps the best known, but there are many new ones.

What are the best-possible outcomes we might strive to achieve at Pivot Point?

  • A: Getting a handle on what is happening and address “bowtie” problem. People don’t suddenly turn off one medium and switch to another; how do you manage the transitions?

M: Analogies: people benchmark organizations that have done particularly good or bad jobs of transition. eg Polaroid, Kodak. Kodak understood the problem and spent a lot of effort trying to get to another place. But they didn't do it successfully. Low-cost Kodak-branded printer was a late product, for digital cameras, but it was a small incremental step. They didn't become FB or flicker. Success is defined after the fact, not during the fact. Product champion is key - need to structure appropriate "air cover."

  • A: Interesting case study of CBS trying to do all-news television before CNN – and ABC making some of the same mistakes with its 24-hour TV news after CNN.

What vital skills, experience, expertise or perspective will achieve those outcomes?

  • M: Advocacy, product management, marketing, technology futurism, and a coolness factor. Work through an adoption chain - could be network of local newspapers or publishers. Need to build out a whole ecosystem.
  • A: Having very different people in the room. eg an NSF national lab (IMSC – imsc.usc.edu) or NPR - challenge each other.

How do we develop the ability to share context and actionable information in a community – and enhance the ability to make meaningful connections?

  • M: Providing a lot of tags and context around information so that you serve people who are subscribing to different channels. Not just giving people what they are looking for, but also what is crucial for them. Newspapers did it well.

Question 2: What is the common framework that can guide us as we take on this work?

  • A: We agree on the importance of this to a democratic society and democratic governance.
  • M: Community relationships: digital can do it better than print - eg response to letter to the editor can be a dialog and not just frozen at the first exchange. It is so easy to do that in digital media.

Question 3: If they were starting from scratch today, what service(s) would news organizations provide to meet community information needs – and how?

  • A: Peter Prichard once joked that they would invent newspapers. But we might have some similar information providers feeding different platforms. My students would say they never listened to radio news, but they all seemed to know NPR stories – because they had emailed them to each other. But we need to avoid extrapolating a constant present: In Africa people who are now migrating to mobile phones view traditional journalism as something their parents consumed. Is that coming here?

Question 4: In a world of data overload, what do we know about the information experience users seek, and how can we help them to discover truly trustworthy information that informs, inspires – and entertains?

  • M: Balance of information and entertainment. Fancy brain-scan optimization makes entertainment much more attractive, addictive. It takes you right to entertainment.
  • A: Until recently, if you were reading a newspaper, you were reading your newspaper. If you were watching a newscast, you were watching a newscast.

Question 5: What is the role for established news organizations in the personal-data ecosystem – the world of privacy, identity and “personas”?

  • A: The role hasn't changed. Monetizing it is the problem.
  • M: Also privacy is new as an issue. Old model: You walked up, paid your money, got your newspaper. No one knew that you read a particular newspaper or story – let alone what you were clicking on. These are new issues we didn’t have before.

Question 6: What would it take for journalists to be at the start of conversations about vibrant, sustainable communities?

  • A: There used to be a truism that the leading newspaper or broadcaster was the one which was at the forefront of setting the agenda for a community. So this is a very traditional question, and I’d argue it has a very traditional, back-to-basics answer.
  • M: In Afghanistan, reporting simple things set the agenda: where are crop yields good or bad? That’s very important. If you don't know things, it is hard to optimize anything.

Question 7: What’s now possible at the intersection of journalism and technology to answer these questions?

  • M: There are many possibilities. Technology and implementation. I’m quite optimistic that one can engineer solutions. Big questions out there are scaling the size and scope of some of these approaches and finding what is success. You need to get something going quickly, and it may fail quickly. Maybe it makes sense to scale a number of things simultaneously. Sometimes you need to come to a certain level of service offerings all at once. Need to quickly learn and start doing things. Agility! We have left the era of an approach that would work for 50 years.
  • A: Customization is an excellent opportunity for service - but immediately and urgently raises privacy concerns.