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June 6, 2012, 2:35 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

Does your newsroom have a smart-refrigerator strategy?

Look past iPads and Android phones: There’s another generation of Internet-enabled devices coming, and news companies face more competition for users’ attention.

In the future, the Jetsons have the TeleViewer, the McFlys have newspapers written by flying robots, and you’ll be getting the morning news from your refrigerator. (You know — when fridge doors become screens that display your Twitter feed, or give real-time traffic updates for the morning commute, or project holograms of Steve Inskeep and Renée Montagne into your breakfast nook, which’ll be integrated with Facebook so you can see real-time photos of what your friends are eating, etc., etc.)

Well, maybe. But it’s a serious question for newsrooms: What’s your refrigerator strategy?

The Internet-enabled future will reach more than kitchen appliances, of course, but it’s a useful shorthand for delving into an approach to non-traditional devices that extends way beyond smartphones and tablets.

The question came up in Austin this spring at the International Symposium on Online Journalism, on a panel about news in a mobile environment. In the Q&A, Brian Boyer asked (10:00 in) about moving beyond smartphones and tablets, “the first usable un-computers:” “What’s your Roku strategy? What’s your goggles strategy? What’s your Internet-connected refrigerator strategy?”

One of the panelists, Chaotic Moon Labs general manager Whurley (yes, Whurley, one word, and it’s like that on his credit cards, he says) riffed on the idea for a bit, and Pedro Doria, digital platforms editor for Brazilian newspaper O Globo confessed: “I’m suddenly worried because I don’t have a refrigerator strategy.”

Whurley, whose team helped code and develop The Daily, didn’t miss a beat: “Good news: I do! And it’s for sale.” This drew a laugh, but it was a provocative moment that highlighted the gap that sometimes exists between the way traditional journalists and tech-oriented developers think about the information future. (For the record, Doria has some innovation cred of his own. We wrote about O Globo’s wildly engaging iPad edition earlier this year.)

“The only way to do it is kind of like a black-hole theory. You can’t try to avoid it. Sometimes you have to go full speed into it.”

The exchange between Doria and Whurley has been tugging at me every since: How much thought have newsrooms put into this kind of strategy? And first things first, does Whurley really have a fridge strategy, or was he just trying to make a point?

“We really do have refrigerators we’ve taken apart,” Whurley told me. “People will one day get their news on the fridge. Perceptive, predictive, pervasive computing. You’ll have your newsfeed broadcast on your mirror, broadcast to your fridge, or home appliances…Why is it so strange to these people? How is that a surprise? I don’t mean to be beating up on journalists, but the fact is these are really, really, really, really, really interesting things, where you have an industry that’s being so drastically changed. The only way to do it is kind of like a black-hole theory. You can’t try to avoid it. Sometimes you have to go full speed into it.”

Whurley points out that companies like Samsung “don’t just make laptops” but also manufacture microwaves, washing machines, and other appliances. As user interfaces evolve toward touch, it’s easier to imagine screens sprouting on new surfaces. He also says that the “completely different” world on the horizon will affect information first, which means it will affect journalism first. That may be a scary thought for some of the “very, very, very risk-averse” journalists whom Whurley has encountered, but there are plenty of newsrooms already giving serious thought to so-called fridge strategy. For The Wall Street Journal, the conversation begins with responsive design.

“The whole point is that you build it in such a way that it moves to whatever device your readers are using to get content,” said Raju Narisetti, managing editor of the paper’s digital network. “The first step is to do universal apps — getting away from this idea of an app for an iPhone, an app for an iPad, an app for an Android. Our view is that the whole website experience will also become more app-like, so responsive design would be an easy way to kind of transport, if you will, our content.”

The idea is that content must be made to travel from device to device, but also optimized and even personalized based on the individual who encounters it. Over at ProPublica, which launched its “adaptive” responsive design last year, Scott Klein takes this idea a step further. Klein, ProPublica’s editor of news applications, suggests the content itself ought to fit the device — not just aesthetically but editorially.

“If people start needing ProPublica stories on their fridge, I guarantee that we’ll be there,” Klein said. “It doesn’t seem silly at all. The thing I suspect you would see on your fridge from ProPublica would be maybe the things that you don’t know that are in all of the food inside the fridge. It may not be good news about what’s in your fridge, but we would be there with accurate and thorough news.”

Like Narisetti, Klein says the bottom line is that ProPublica wants to be “everywhere our readers want to be.” So how do you actually, practically implement a refrigerator strategy? This isn’t the elections app you’re releasing before the conventions, or the website redesign that goes live by year’s end: The fridge solution is the longview, and for many news institutions it requires a tectonic shift without the luxury of a deadline in geologic time.

In Internet years, the early 2000s were a generation ago. Back then, The Washington Post’s Cory Haik, who leads the newspaper’s news innovation team, says that she used to joke that eventually she’d be producing holograms. “But it’s not a joke anymore,” she told me. “The fridge solution is integrating technologists into the newsrom.”

In other words: Understanding the need for a refrigerator strategy is not the same as having the staff that can get you there. For one thing, Haik says, “you have to have that hybrid journalist-technologist-data visualization person.” Then you have to figure out the best way to publish a damn good story on any given device. Cross-platform ubiquity may be essential, but it’s not enough.

“How do you tell stories on the fridge? How do you tell stories in holograms?” Haik said. “The newsroom of now, the newsroom of the future, is very much a studio environment of specialists that collaborate. Your editors are people who understand opportunity, and then they gather those people together and produce it.”

What about the news consumer of the future? Turns out she’s increasingly collaborative, too. Not only does she want news and information when and where she wants it, but she’s sharing the news, and her reaction to it (or her parodies of it) on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and on and on and on.

Talking Points Memo editor and publisher Josh Marshall says a refrigerator solution is about more than the refrigerator. It’s about how people use it to connect with one another. (Last month we caught up with Marshall about the point at which he stopped seeing TPM as a website, but rather “in the ether.”)

“There’s very little about Twitter that couldn’t have been done in 2003,” Marshall said. “There’s no technology there that’s new. And sort of the same with Facebook. There’s no technological breakthrough. Social experiences are changing, which is different than technology. How people relate to each other, and how people consume news. These new sites aren’t really new technology — they’re new ways of wiring people together. That’s evolving and we’re constantly looking for new ways to plug our innovations into that evolution.”

Whurley has a similar take. You think you’ve seen disruption to the news industry? Just wait, he says: “People say, ‘It’s changing so much.’ It really hasn’t. [The change thus far has] given people the ability to write and publish news stories who [previously] couldn’t, but it really hasn’t changed that much. Things are about to change now. That’s the warning. If you had thought things had changed? You are way, way off.”

POSTED     June 6, 2012, 2:35 p.m.
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