3 things we learned at VOCER innovation day


VOCER hosted its 4th Innovation Day at DER SPIEGEL’s headquarter in Hamburg on Saturday 11th November. As the event drew to an end, attendees left with new insights and ideas around digital transformation in news publishing, and how to use data to innovate in an ever changing tech landscape. As sponsors and active participants of the event, here are our key takeaways.

Some publishers are becoming less reliant on advertising revenues and moving toward subscriptions and reader donation models

Monika Bäuerlein, CEO of progressive US magazine Mother Jones focused her Ignite Talk on the topic Can Trump save journalism? The press has been both punching bag and beneficiary in the age of Trump. As a journalist she highlighted the need to pay attention to all spectrums of news, and not settle for the cosy option of staying inside a liberal echo chamber.

To put the beneficial part in context, the New York Times alone now has 2.3 million digital-only subscribers since Donald Trump’s election, a growth of 62% compared to the same period last year. Bäuerlein extended on this by sharing Mother Jones’ main revenue streams, which shows 65% of revenues comes from a combination of reader donation and subscriptions revenues.

Publishers are in favour of automation to do what it does well

When asked by a delegate about her views on automation in journalism, her response was “let robots do what they do well.” Retresco welcomes this view and highlighted in our opening address that automation is a big field. It goes far beyond robot journalism, an output powered by Natural Language Generation (NLG) technology. Data-driven products such as semantic applications and advanced analytics tools are all made possible by content automation.

An example is the algorithm developed and maintained by Retresco that supports DER SPIEGEL’s 70-person strong fact-checking team called dokumentation. Dr. Hauke Janssen, head of dokumentation described it to Digiday as “a research instrument to organize information in a differentiated way, better than Google can.” This is an example of what robots do well.

Let data be your friends. Focus the entire organisation on audience engagement

Data was a common theme in this year’s conference. Adam Thomas, director at the European Journalism Centre and Daniel Fiene, editor from Rheinishce Post in separate sessions discussed data analytics tools for the newsroom. The goal of these tools, whether developed in-house or with third parties such as CrowdTangle, is to provide journalists with access to rich, real-time data, helping them better understand the impact of stories, and how audiences are interacting with their journalism.

Some tools have been more successful than others with their adoption in the newsroom as well as across commercial and product teams. Our key takeaways:

  • Personalise products and use data to support discovery
  • Improve experiments with data by being test-driven and evidence-based
  • Focus the entire organisation on audience engagement, and using data to bring teams closer to the reader and their needs
  • Break down silos and embed cultural changes with the transformative power of using data

In short, VOCER Innovation Day 2017 centered around data-driven journalism. We enjoyed seeing debates around how to get readers to pay for news, and how this fits with the positive trend of an increasing number of people willing to pay to read news in a digital format.

If it were up to us, next year we would like dig deeper into the following areas addressed in this year’s Reuters Digital News Report:

  • Personalisation and how this may influence push notifications. Mobile news notifications have grown significantly in the last year, for example by 8% points in the US. It is becoming an important new route to content, thus giving a new lease of life to news apps
  • Decline in open social networks for news and the rise of closed social media platforms such as WhatsApp for news. Causes could be down to messaging apps being perceived as a.) more private, and b.) tend not to filter content algorithmically
  • In Germany, the use of Facebook for news has declined by 2% points compared to 2016
  • WhatsApp is now the third biggest social platform for news with 12%. It is second largest for ages 35-44 with 15%, ahead of YouTube
  • Voice activated devices for news. Despite low penetration at the moment, 50% of those who use smart speakers use it for news. Newsrooms would need to consider what their brand might sound like (see Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway’s views on Experimental Amy)

Being data-driven helps publishers enhance audience engagement, and continues to show great promise. Innovation is not slowing down. Startups like Retresco have things that publishers need: talent with intimate knowledge of emerging technologies, flexibility to fail fast, change course, and scale at breakneck speed. This is why publishers should work with technology vendors to keep up and embrace change if they want to stay competitive.

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