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Journalism as a technology service

“Over the years, journalists have innovated narrowly, focusing on how stories look rather than what journalism can do.”

When journalists think about digital innovation, we mostly think in experiences and attention: What does the story look like? How do we attract people to see it?

But what if we think about what journalism does? Not just through storytelling, but through technology services that do things and solve problems. As author Clayton Christensen calls them, “jobs to be done.”

There’s certainly lots to do. Complicated global problems like mis- and disinformation, climate change, information warfare, and the erosion of privacy are creating new “jobs” that companies and consumers will pay to get done.

Journalism’s strengths map increasingly well to help solve these important problems. For example, journalists are particularly adept at digging up news, evaluating fuzzy data, gut-checking unusual developments, evaluating sources, verifying the facts, making sense of what’s happening, and synthesizing what’s important. Journalism is also mission-driven and it excels at fairness, honesty, and transparency.

This creates new opportunities — new imperatives — to employ journalism’s know-how and ethics as technology services.

Understanding services

When we think about software as a service (SaaS), we often think of companies like Slack (collaboration), Urban Airship (push notifications) and Chartbeat (analytics).

These technology services help you do things that would be too difficult, costly, or time-consuming to do yourself. They make work easier and help you get more done. A new crop of SaaS companies use machine learning to pore through data and identify opportunities, efficiencies, and risks that humans can’t detect alone.

While people often question why they should pay for content, they’re more accustomed to paying for services. When you accomplish something valuable — especially if it can be measured — people will pay for it. The business model is baked in from the beginning.

Facts as a service

When BreakingNews.com and the Breaking News app were shut down at the end of 2016, we had made a surprising discovery. While we had created Breaking News as a consumer experience, many of the world’s largest organizations used it as a service.

We knew journalists were fans of Breaking News — it was on their newsroom monitors and on their phones — but we were surprised to discover a big adjacent market of enterprise users in corporate security, crisis response, communications, transportation, and other sectors.

They relied on our real-time verification and notifications to help protect people, anticipate disruptions, and identify emerging risks. They manually tied it into their workflows and trusted it to make mission-critical decisions during shootings, wildfires, and global unrest, like evacuating stores or diverting employee travel.

Companies told us they wanted it back with new enterprise features — and they were willing to pay an annual subscription fee. A few months later, we filed the paperwork to incorporate a new company called Factal.

Journalism as technology

After running dozens of beta tests, we learned that simply publishing and selling news as a subscription wasn’t enough. This is not just a content subscription business. We needed to make data-driven products that enabled companies — big companies with massive global footprints and increasingly automated systems — to act immediately when a news event posed a risk to their business.

So we doubled-down on the technology, delving into machine learning and the mechanics of signal detection, geolocation, and verification. Here are three ways we put journalism to work in creating a technology service:

  • Combine journalists and technology together in real-time workflows. We assembled a newsroom of top-notch journalists and designed technology to make them faster and more impactful than ever.
  • Infuse journalistic know-how into platforms, algorithms, and products. We’ve learned a lot over the years about detecting news, vetting sources, verifying and geolocating content, identifying important developments, building news communities, etc., and we’re converting much of this know-how into code.
  • Instill journalism’s mission and ethics in all aspects of the business. Our mission is to help protect people from harm, and we created a code of ethics not only for our news coverage but also for how we do business.

After more than a year of work, Factal launched in October, transitioning from an ad-driven news experience to a trusted technology service powered by journalism. By building Factal as a service, we’re building an economic foundation that fuels our journalism in the years to come.

Broadening beyond stories to services

Journalism is uniquely suited to tackle the world’s most vexing problems — the erosion of facts and the accelerating effects of climate change — not just through stories, but increasingly through technology services.

But suffering from innovation fatigue and faced with extraordinary news cycles, many newsrooms have retreated even more to their core. With the exception of a handful of big-branded news organizations, the industry continues its economic decline while technology services thrive.

Over the years, journalists have innovated narrowly, focusing on how stories look rather than what journalism can do. When Waze steers you around a traffic accident, isn’t that a journalism service? When Alexa answers a question about a current event? When Ring or NextDoor alerts you to a nearby crime?

By taking a broader approach to innovation, there’s a tremendous opportunity to leverage journalism’s strengths to do new things through technology. To do jobs that people will pay for. To solve big problems and make a difference in our increasingly dangerous, disorienting world.

Cory Bergman is cofounder and vice president of product at Factal.

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