The Future is Now
The Reynolds Journalism Institute is shaping how journalists deliver news.
“Drones” conjure images of unmanned aircrafts targeting terrorists. But the Missouri Drone Journalism Program is different. When the levee breaks, the oil tanker leaks or the drought strikes, journalists want to show the wide-ranging impacts of those events. The photo-taking drones that have landed at RJI and public radio partner KBIA can do just that.
Read more about the new Drone Journalism class.
Modern life — and journalism — is on the go. With “Mobile Tools,” RJI makes it easy for reporters to find the best mobile apps to record audio, video and still pictures on smartphones, and edit the sound, movies and photos later. Mobile Tools is a Consumer Reports-like page on the RJI website that offers up the pros and cons for the myriad mobile reporting apps available.
RJI’s mission includes studying and developing innovative technology for journalism. It also has an in-house TV studio as part of its convergence journalism training. In March 2013, the institute brought those two together with the launch of its weekly vodcast (think video podcast), which highlights cutting-edge technology, interviews with leading entrepreneurs and insights from the latest industry research.
TV changed presidential debates by revealing a candidate’s style and body language. Social media is changing the game once again. Two RJI Fellows, Associate Professor of Communication Mitchell McKinney and Assistant Professor of Communication Brian Houston, are studying the use of Twitter during the 2012 debates to show how social media affected viewers and how journalists can mine Twitter to help their reporting.
Michael McKean, BJ ’79, loves the coffee table book he got for Christmas. It looks traditional. It has two hard covers, binding and lots of glossy photos. But the director of the Futures Lab at MU’s Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) likes the volume for all the ways it’s different — a companion iPad app with supplemental content and the hard copy equivalent of hyperlinks scattered through the 200-plus pages that take readers’ smartphones to online videos.
The book represents how technology is changing media — which is what McKean spends his days thinking about — and reinforces one of his central beliefs: Old technology adapts to the new but is seldom replaced by it. Video didn’t kill the radio star. The Internet didn’t kill print.
“All these media are merging,” McKean contends. “One’s not killing the others, but it’s changing the others.”
The newest entrant is mobile technology — smartphones and computer tablets — which will soon be the primary way people access the Internet. It’s shaking things up the way the personal computer did 15 years ago, and no one quite knows how things will settle out.
“We’re in this moment in time where nothing is certain, but everything is possible,” McKean says.
His job at the Futures Lab — and the mission of RJI in general — is to experiment and innovate in that uncertainty and create tools that will strengthen journalism and preserve for the 21st century Thomas Jefferson’s bulwark of democracy — the well-informed citizen.
Armed with a $30.1 million endowment gift from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation announced in November 2012, RJI is ready to fulfill its mission.
The endowment kicks in after an initial $15 million gift from the foundation to fund RJI’s operations expires in 2015. The endowment will fund half the institute’s $3 million annual budget — mostly salaries and technology — putting RJI in a position few journalism think tanks can boast: permanence.
“Everybody took for granted that there would be newspapers and journalism,” says RJI Director Randy Picht, BJ ’80. “Now we’re at the point where [journalists] are asking … ‘How are we going to survive?’ ”
Half of RJI’s budget will come from partnerships, professional services and fundraising, but the question RJI will face each year will always be how much it can afford to do, never whether it will exist at all. “There’s one place that’s [always] going to be involved in strengthening journalism,” Picht says. “It’s very welcome news.”
Here are some examples of recent projects.
Future research will likely focus on optimizing mobile technology for journalism producers and consumers. Morgan Stanley estimates that the number of mobile Internet devices in use in 2013 will top the number of wired desktop and laptop computers. Similarly, mobile users will outnumber wired users in 2014.
Microsoft, long dominant in software for personal computers, trails Apple and Google in the growing mobile world but is looking to close the gap. The company forged a first-of-its-kind university partnership with MU in September 2012. Microsoft spent $100,000 to outfit a Windows Application Lab at RJI, replete with about 40 Windows Phones and Surface tablets, several Windows-based PCs, and a big-screen TV with an Xbox 360 game system and Kinect motion sensor.
The lab is sparsely decorated and has lots of clean edges and white surfaces — like a blank sheet of paper. One wall is a giant whiteboard. In one corner a business student, in a moment of low-tech inspiration, scribbled in red marker a help-wanted ad for an app development partner.
Microsoft and MU jointly pay a lab manager and lead programmer to assist students and faculty members in developing new apps for themselves and clients. One app is already in the works for one of the largest newspapers in the U.S. The relationship is symbiotic: Students use the technology and learn programming skills; Microsoft populates its app store and gets its products in the hands of potential buyers.
RJI also hosts an annual competition where students create products or programs that solve real-world problems for real-world clients. For the past several years, the Hearst Corp. has sponsored the competition and been the target client. This year the challenge is for students to create various apps for the company to run on Microsoft’s new app-friendly Windows 8 operating system.
Peng Zhuang, MS, MS ’06, PhD ’10, a senior software engineer for Google, says the student competition professionalized his approach to computer engineering. Zhuang and his team won the 2009 contest with NearBuy, a real estate iPhone app that was the first to integrate mapping technology. At one time it was among the 10 most-downloaded free business apps.
“[The competition] shifted my perspective,” Zhuang says. “Before I started, I was thinking more like a student where you have homework and you have to develop a theory to write a paper. After, I was thinking, ‘How do I invent a product that will help users?’ ”
The Price Is Right, Right?
Historically, newspapers had a monopoly on local news and advertising, which led to decidedly un-businesslike ways of pricing their products, says Esther Thorson, associate dean for graduate studies at the School of Journalism and director of research for RJI.
While the rest of the corporate world researched their products’ sticker prices to the penny, Thorson says, newspapers picked a price out of the air for ads and home delivery.
The Internet — and a generation of people who didn’t care about the news the way their parents did — broke newspapers’ business models, Thorson says, but newspapers haven’t changed their approach. The price of the paper is still arbitrary, she says, and until recently, even considering a price for online news was anathema.
That struck Murali Mantrala, Sam Walton Distinguished Professor of Marketing in the Trulaske College of Business, as a sure way to leave money on the table. Mantrala and Thorson, who had collaborated on projects for years, brought a scientific approach to determining how much news should cost.
With the help of RJI graduate research assistants, they first looked at whether free content on the Web made business sense. They found that, if newspapers charged online readers, they would lose 60-70 percent of them. But that meant 30-40 percent of people are willing to pay something. They also found that as much as 75 percent of online traffic is from readers outside the circulation area, and they are the readers most unwilling to pay. The readers who remain, despite the cost, are local, engaged residents — precisely whom local advertisers want to target.
Mantrala and Thorson completed two studies that confirmed charging for the Web made money. The question then became how much to charge?
With more research help from RJI and financial assistance that allowed Mantrala to opt out of some of his teaching responsibilies, the team adapted an evaluation system based on conjoint analysis, a standard technique in most industries. It involves asking current and potential customers questions about how much they would be willing to pay for a range of product options.
What newspapers had done before, Thorson says, was ask readers outright: How much would you pay to read our website? Their answer, predictably, was nothing. But ask if they would prefer to get home delivery for one price, home delivery and Web access for another price, or home delivery and a mobile app for a third price, or none of the above, and you get a different answer, Thorson says.
That is the basis of the Pricing Optimizer. It homes in on what product mixes people want and how much they’re willing to pay. Thorson and Mantrala tested it with The Seattle Times during winter 2013 and are planning tests with other metro newspapers. They hope to partner with Mather Economics LLC, which helps papers set subscription rates and “Web meters” (the number of stories a month a person can read free before paying), and offer the Pricing Optimizer as part of a package of services.
The short-term goal is to shore up newspapers’ bottom lines. But the broader goal is to bring a scientific approach to decision-making in the industry.
The lesson, Thorson says, is, “Don’t just make it up — test it.”
Newspapers started losing the valuable classified ad market when Craigslist showed up in 1999. The free site — free to post, free to read — undercut the pay-to-post classifieds newspapers offered, and customers flocked to it.
But Craigslist has its downsides, contends 2011 RJI Fellow Peter Meng. He is determined to bring classifieds back into the broadsheet fold — at least to the online version of it.
Meng had the idea for adFreeq about four years ago when he searched “for sale” on Twitter and found pages of people hawking their used goods. Twitter offers something Craigslist doesn’t: anonymous two-way communication (Craigslist is only anonymous for the seller). It got Meng thinking about other ways he could improve the online classified experience.
Meng is one of a handful of fellows that RJI takes on annually. They come to Columbia from industry and academia for eight months (two semesters) to test innovative ideas. A new twist on the program in 2013 gives fellows the option to stay in their current jobs and pursue their fellowships remotely.
During his fellowship, Meng worked out a system in which websites — primarily newspapers and trade publication sites — would put an adFreeq app on the side of any of their Web pages and customize which ads it would display. Newspapers could put the app on their online sports page and tell it to display sports-themed ads — tickets to the game, autographed jerseys, used golf clubs, etc.
This means newspapers can move classifieds from sequestered sections of their websites and put them in front of general readers, sellers can easily advertise on a trusted local website, and buyers have the security of corresponding with sellers anonymously and knowing if the sellers’ email addresses and credit card numbers have been verified.
Meng is working on a feature in which adFreeq learns to recognize the interests of readers. It can figure out that someone likes sports stories, especially about baseball and specifically the Cardinals. It will then know to offer up an ad for, say, a Tony LaRussa bobble-head collection someone just posted. Also, buyers with something specific in mind can register their cell numbers with adFreeq and get a text when someone lists their desired item.
Meng says Web publishers have the option of charging for ads that appear on their sites. Text ads that appear for a couple of days will probably be free, but ads with photos or ads listed for a week or more would cost a nominal amount.
“It’s a value-added service, and we think people will spend a small amount for that,” he says.
Ultimately, Meng says he can bring back 25-50 percent of the classified revenue newspapers, magazines and trade publications have lost.
After years of work, Meng finally launched adFreeq April 17, 2013. He says it only happened because of the resources and assistance of RJI. His monthly salary allowed him to focus on adFreeq full time, graduate research assistants provided him with free labor, and RJI has endlessly promoted him and his idea.
More than that, he says, RJI gave him its imprimatur. “I can go talk to any magazine or newspaper in the world,” he says. “I tell them I developed this with the J-School and RJI, and they say, ‘Really? Come talk to us.’ ”