What is the future of journalism? That is the question that was asked by the panel speakers of “Hype or not, how and when will web3 (blockchain/NFTs) and metaverse (AR/VR/XR) impact journalism?” during the first day of the 23rd International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ), held on April 1 and 2 in Austin, Texas.
Moderated by Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, panelists Jarno M. Koponen, leader in artificial intelligence and personalization at the Finnish nonprofit public media company Yle News Lab; Maria Bustillos, editor-in-chief of the digital news and alternative culture magazine Popula.com; and Ray Soto, senior director of emerging technology at Gannett, USA Today Network, discussed the huge window of opportunity news organizations have with the advancement of web3 and metaverse-related technologies, and how these developments will affect news organizations in the short-term future.
Web3 is considered the third generation of the internet and, unlike the global network we know today, it would be based on decentralized processes, without much intervention from technology companies. It incorporates concepts such as blockchain technology and the cryptocurrency-based economy. Although it is still in its early stages, it is believed that web3 will completely change the way users interact on the web.
The metaverse is the digital space that can be accessed through virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), or extended reality (XR) technologies.
While the big technology companies and content industries are investing multi-million dollar amounts in preparation of what the future of the internet will be, media organizations are not betting as much on innovation, much less on experimentation with web3-related issues or the metaverse, Jarno Koponen said during his presentation.
“I think that this is a moment of opportunity to use these new platforms like the web3, and all it can entail or the metaverse (VR, AR) in order to rethink what journalism can be, what it should be,” he said. “How could we rethink content, how could we rethink distribution, how could we potentially rethink monetization and business models?”
It's important for journalism organizations to be able to recognize that these developments are happening and, if possible, to become more actively involved in shaping what these emerging platforms can mean for journalists and readers, Koponen added.
The innovation expert raised three questions that the media should ask themselves regarding the future of the internet in relation to journalism. The first is what the journalistic organization of the future will look like and how it can be built. The second, whether journalism needs to update its processes in this era of information in real time and social media. And, finally, what will be the future interface for journalistic content once social media and smartphones are a thing of the past.
Koponen believes the answers to those questions will have to do with a combination of journalism, data science and design, not only in the teams that generate the stories, but also at the media management levels.
“It's crucial to make it happen also in leadership teams, so people understand this multidisciplinary way to see the world and its opportunities,” he said.
Maria Bustillos spoke of the possibilities that blockchain has for journalism, which refers to a series of digital technologies that record, preserve and protect information from any type of online operation without the intervention of third parties throughout a “block chain.” Although the blockchain is mainly related to cryptocurrency transactions, its technology can have many other uses, since the data stored there cannot be modified or deleted.
“From the first minute I started reading about blockchain technology, it struck me that the important aspect of it was the record-keeping. The money part of it didn't really interest me from the beginning,” Bustillos said. “So I've always been thinking about blockchain technology and what it can do for journalism, first and foremost as an archival sort of system.”
Bustillos said that another function that blockchain allows and that can be very useful for journalism is that of micro-tips. She mentioned an experiment that was carried out on Popula.com, in which readers could tip using the ETH cryptocurrency that went directly to the virtual wallets of the authors of articles and columns.
NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are another element of the web3 that could be very useful for journalism. These are non-exchangeable units of data stored on a blockchain that serve as certificates of authenticity for physical or digital objects and function as a form of property in the digital world. Digital goods backed by an NFT cannot be duplicated or counterfeited without this being detected by all blocks in the chain.
Bustillos explained that with NFTs, digital content can be encapsulated at the time of its creation, register its existence and establish its authorship. But in addition, she said, this technology could also become a way for people to connect with journalism and participate in the process.
“NFTs are, for example, a way of giving people a personal stake in something that's happening. One thing you can do is to get people to contribute to fund a story or buy a camera [...] You can comment, you can give money, and I think these things are very fruitful, it’s very positive feedback,” Bustillos said. “NFT’s is a whole world of ways where people can connect with the sources of their information and participate.”
With NFTs, the journalist said, there would be an unalterable record of readers' input or participation in making a project happen.
“To me, that's better than something you can put on the wall,” she said.
Although there is more media experimentation in the metaverse arena, with successful experiments with virtual reality and augmented reality by some major outlets like The New York Times or The Guardian, journalists need to start thinking about narratives that go beyond mobile device screens, according to Ray Soto.
“We need to be thinking about journalism and interacting with content beyond the screen. When you consider that this device here [a smartphone] has not essentially changed in the past, you know, almost 15 years, yes you have larger screens, yes it's faster, you can do more with it. But there's a piece of technology embedded in there that's essentially telling us that things are changing, and it’s almost a breadcrumb of what we can expect next,” he said.
That piece of technology Soto referred to is LiDAR (light detection and ranging), a device that measures the time it takes for light to reflect off objects to create a depth map of the environment. Some recent generation smartphones include a LiDAR sensor that enhances augmented reality experiences.
Soto explained that after the first immersive journalistic stories that required the use of an interactive helmet, about seven years ago, up to the current augmented reality stories, including 360-degree video reports, users have been developing a "spatial awareness ” and they have been learning to conduct themselves in immersive stories.
He added that he and his team at USA Today have learned that there are four main elements that must be considered when producing immersive stories: visuals, which allow the user to understand the story, while also finding value in what they see; interactivity, so that the user can discover the story for him or herself; sound, to reinforce the interactive experience; and pacing, which achieves a narrative balance between the first three elements.
“What we learned in VR, as I mentioned, can be applied [in augmented reality], but we can't create these long interactive experiences that go on for 10 minutes. Our sweet spot has been about three minutes and we try to adhere to that very very strongly, especially when we consider all four of these pillars,” he said.
Soto said USA Today readers are understanding what virtual reality and augmented reality technologies are, and have begun to find value in them. And that has been reflected in the interactivity and permanence figures recorded by the immersive stories, particularly for those he and his team developed about COVID-19.
He also advised newsrooms that want to start experimenting in the metaverse to create a cross-divisional workflow and develop immersive stories hand-in-hand with traditional reporters. He also urged journalists to understand the stories, be transparent and not be afraid to correct mistakes. And, finally, to try to evolve with the technology and the audience in mind.
“So going back to the question I proposed about what comes next: the future of journalism is immersive, interactive and 3D,” Soto said.