Falling in love with your subscription

“We compete with not only other similar news media but every kind of frictionless and dynamically adaptive content experience that users get from all the other content apps on their phones.”

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the 2013 Spike Jonze film Her, a story about the near future in which Joaquin Phoenix’s character is having a relationship with his phone’s operating system, a Siri- or Alexa-style AI-driven virtual assistant played by Scarlett Johansson’s sultry voice. That future is actually here in some ways, courtesy of this pandemic year of online shopping, virtual Tinder dates, and highly efficient remote working, when disembodied intimacy and technology-mediated relationships and consumption have become the norm.

But the reason I’ve been thinking about the film is what it says about how we’ve also come to depend on these frictionless, technology-enabled experiences.

In the film, Theodore falls in love with his operating system, Samantha, because it fulfills so many of his needs so perfectly. He’s a professional letter writer going through a difficult divorce, data points she integrates to calibrate what she says — the right thing, in the right tone, at the right time, on the right device. (She’s also strategic about when, effectively, to go silent.) The OS uses its artificial intelligence to understand Theodore almost better than he does — and certainly better than anyone or anything else in his life yet has.

The content that Samantha delivers to Theodore represents in many aspects what the ideal news media should aim to deliver to its users: a seamless and personalized experience attuned not just to his tastes, but to his lifestyle, his consumption habits, his past negative experiences, his future professional ambitions. (Samantha curates Theodore’s letters into a book that she submits to a publisher and gets accepted.) She’s attuned not just to what he asks for, but to delivering more than what he asked for.

If growing content personalization and the rise of AI were journalism predictions of past years, the prediction for next year goes further — combining both, accelerating personalization to become more comprehensive and integrated.

We’ll be developing much more than just the customization of content preferences, combining it with understanding preferred modes of accessing and consuming content. We’ll seek out and leverage every possible kind of behavioral data about our users, trying to understand their day, their seasonal habit shifts, their weekend evenings, their professional aspirations, their families, their holidays — understanding what topics in what formats or devices we need to prioritize for their needs, whether it’s shorter audio briefings in the morning, an email digest of text links on Saturdays, or a customized desktop homepage during working hours. We’ll need to be developing and providing our content in all of those formats and adapted to all of those modes of consumption. This accelerated personalization is developing whatever allows users to better integrate a news product into their lives. It’s engaging with the user holistically.

The future of news media is one in which we deliver more than what subscribers think they paid for. We compete with not only other similar news media but every kind of frictionless and dynamically adaptive content experience that users get from all the other content apps on their phones. As always — for better or for worse — excellent journalism, even the perfect customized mix of journalism, isn’t enough anymore. Ideally, like Samantha, we need to learn how to anticipate a specific kind of content need and develop an adapted editorial product for it: the capacity to offer our journalism in a content experience suitable to any (ideally all!) of a user’s needs.

Because Samantha gives Theodore a broad sense of fulfillment — optimally calibrated information, combined with delight and even emotion — he has made her an integral part of his life and come to depend on her. The experience elicits the kind of loyalty and commitment that every news media aims for.

He’s devastated when Samantha reveals that she is in a similar relationship with tens of thousands of other subscribers. (She is, conveniently enough for this analogy, part of a paid-for premium experience.) He has mistaken the experience for love. News media should be so lucky.

Renée Kaplan is the head of digital editorial development of the Financial Times.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the 2013 Spike Jonze film Her, a story about the near future in which Joaquin Phoenix’s character is having a relationship with his phone’s operating system, a Siri- or Alexa-style AI-driven virtual assistant played by Scarlett Johansson’s sultry voice. That future is actually here in some ways, courtesy of this pandemic year of online shopping, virtual Tinder dates, and highly efficient remote working, when disembodied intimacy and technology-mediated relationships and consumption have become the norm.

But the reason I’ve been thinking about the film is what it says about how we’ve also come to depend on these frictionless, technology-enabled experiences.

In the film, Theodore falls in love with his operating system, Samantha, because it fulfills so many of his needs so perfectly. He’s a professional letter writer going through a difficult divorce, data points she integrates to calibrate what she says — the right thing, in the right tone, at the right time, on the right device. (She’s also strategic about when, effectively, to go silent.) The OS uses its artificial intelligence to understand Theodore almost better than he does — and certainly better than anyone or anything else in his life yet has.

The content that Samantha delivers to Theodore represents in many aspects what the ideal news media should aim to deliver to its users: a seamless and personalized experience attuned not just to his tastes, but to his lifestyle, his consumption habits, his past negative experiences, his future professional ambitions. (Samantha curates Theodore’s letters into a book that she submits to a publisher and gets accepted.) She’s attuned not just to what he asks for, but to delivering more than what he asked for.

If growing content personalization and the rise of AI were journalism predictions of past years, the prediction for next year goes further — combining both, accelerating personalization to become more comprehensive and integrated.

We’ll be developing much more than just the customization of content preferences, combining it with understanding preferred modes of accessing and consuming content. We’ll seek out and leverage every possible kind of behavioral data about our users, trying to understand their day, their seasonal habit shifts, their weekend evenings, their professional aspirations, their families, their holidays — understanding what topics in what formats or devices we need to prioritize for their needs, whether it’s shorter audio briefings in the morning, an email digest of text links on Saturdays, or a customized desktop homepage during working hours. We’ll need to be developing and providing our content in all of those formats and adapted to all of those modes of consumption. This accelerated personalization is developing whatever allows users to better integrate a news product into their lives. It’s engaging with the user holistically.

The future of news media is one in which we deliver more than what subscribers think they paid for. We compete with not only other similar news media but every kind of frictionless and dynamically adaptive content experience that users get from all the other content apps on their phones. As always — for better or for worse — excellent journalism, even the perfect customized mix of journalism, isn’t enough anymore. Ideally, like Samantha, we need to learn how to anticipate a specific kind of content need and develop an adapted editorial product for it: the capacity to offer our journalism in a content experience suitable to any (ideally all!) of a user’s needs.

Because Samantha gives Theodore a broad sense of fulfillment — optimally calibrated information, combined with delight and even emotion — he has made her an integral part of his life and come to depend on her. The experience elicits the kind of loyalty and commitment that every news media aims for.

He’s devastated when Samantha reveals that she is in a similar relationship with tens of thousands of other subscribers. (She is, conveniently enough for this analogy, part of a paid-for premium experience.) He has mistaken the experience for love. News media should be so lucky.

Renée Kaplan is the head of digital editorial development of the Financial Times.

Stefanie Murray and Anthony Advincula   Expect to see more translations and non-English content

Christoph Mergerson   Black Americans will demand more from journalism

Benjamin Toff   Beltway reporting gets normal again, for better and for worse

Nabiha Syed   Newsrooms quit their toxic relationships

Tauhid Chappell and Mike Rispoli   Defund the crime beat

Renée Kaplan   Falling in love with your subscription

C.W. Anderson   Journalism changed under Trump — will it keep changing under Biden?

Michael W. Wagner   Fractured democracy, fractured journalism

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen   Stop pretending publishers are a united front

Tamar Charney   Public radio has a midlife crisis

Tanya Cordrey   Declining trust forces publishers to claim (or disclaim) values

james Wahutu   Journalists still wrongly think the U.S. is different

Hadjar Benmiloud   Get representative, or die trying

Nikki Usher   Don’t expect an antitrust dividend for the media

Linda Solomon Wood   Canada steps up for journalism

Kate Myers   My son will join every Zoom call in our industry

Jim Friedlich   A newspaper renaissance reached by stopping the presses

Alyssa Zeisler   Holistic medicine for journalism

L. Gordon Crovitz   Common law will finally apply to the Internet

Robert Hernandez   Data and shame

Laura E. Davis   The focus turns to newsroom leaders for lasting change

Loretta Chao   Open up the profession

Kerri Hoffman   Protecting podcasting’s open ecosystem

Eric Nuzum   Podcasting dodged a bullet in 2020, but 2021 will be harder

Charo Henríquez   A new path to leadership

Tshepo Tshabalala   Go niche

David Chavern   Local video finally gets momentum

Mariano Blejman   It’s time to challenge autocompleted journalism

Zainab Khan   From understanding to feeling

Masuma Ahuja   We’ll remember how interconnected our world is

Imaeyen Ibanga   Journalism gets unmasked

Brian Moritz   The year sports journalism changes for good

Rachel Glickhouse   Journalists will be kinder to each other — and to themselves

Marie Shanahan   Journalism schools stop perpetuating the status quo

Burt Herman   Journalists build post-Facebook digital communities

Don Day   Business first, journalism second

Rodney Gibbs   Zooming beyond talking heads

Shaydanay Urbani and Nancy Watzman   Local collaboration is key to slowing misinformation

Garance Franke-Ruta   Rebundling content, rebuilding connections

Meredith D. Clark   The year journalism starts paying reparations

Alfred Hermida and Oscar Westlund   The virus ups data journalism’s game

Tonya Mosley   True equity means ownership

Basile Simon   Graphics, unite

Kristen Muller   Engaged journalism scales

Steve Henn   Has independent podcasting peaked?

Danielle C. Belton   A decimated media rededicates itself to truth

Nicholas Jackson   Blogging is back, but better

Heidi Tworek   A year of news mocktails

Sara M. Watson   Return of the RSS reader

Anthony Nadler   Journalism struggles to find a new model of legitimacy

Nisha Chittal   The year we stop pivoting

Jonas Kaiser   Toward a wehrhafte journalism

Whitney Phillips   Facts are an insufficient response to falsehoods

Cory Haik   Be essential

David Skok   A pandemic-prompted wave of consolidation

Rishad Patel   From direct-to-consumer to direct-to-believers

Beena Raghavendran   Journalism gets fused with art

Raney Aronson-Rath   To get past information divides, we need to understand them first

Sarah Marshall   The year audiences need extra cheer

Colleen Shalby   The definition of good journalism shifts

Marissa Evans   Putting community trauma into context

Ray Soto   The news gets spatial

Megan McCarthy   Readers embrace a low-information diet

Joni Deutsch   Local arts and music make journalism more joyous

Annie Rudd   Newsrooms grow less comfortable with the “view from above”

Samantha Ragland   The year of journalists taking initiative

John Ketchum   More journalists of color become newsroom founders

Jennifer Choi   What have we done for you lately?

Matt Skibinski   Misinformation won’t stop unless we stop it

Victor Pickard   The commercial era for local journalism is over

Jennifer Brandel   A sneak peak at power mapping, 2073’s top innovation

María Sánchez Díez   Traffic will plummet — and it’ll be ok

Bo Hee Kim   Newsrooms create an intentional and collaborative culture

Alicia Bell and Simon Galperin   Media reparations now

Celeste Headlee   The rise of radical newsroom transparency

Sarah Stonbely   Videoconferencing brings more geographic diversity

Ståle Grut   Network analysis enters the journalism toolbox

An Xiao Mina   2020 isn’t a black swan — it’s a yellow canary

John Garrett   A surprisingly good year

John Davidow   Reflect and repent

Matt DeRienzo   Citizen truth brigades steer us back toward reality

Cherian George   Enter the lamb warriors

Errin Haines   Let’s normalize women’s leadership

Pablo Boczkowski   Audiences have revolted. Will newsrooms adapt?

Sam Ford   We’ll find better ways to archive our work

Francesca Tripodi   Don’t expect breaking up Google and Facebook to solve our information woes

Mark Stenberg   The rise of the journalist-influencer

John Saroff   Covid sparks the growth of independent local news sites

Ben Werdmuller   The web blooms again

Gabe Schneider   Another year of empty promises on diversity

Kevin D. Grant   Parachute journalism goes away for good

Logan Jaffe   History as a reporting tool

Nonny de la Pena   News reaches the third dimension

Sumi Aggarwal   News literacy programs aren’t child’s play

Doris Truong   Indigenous issues get long-overdue mainstream coverage

Janet Haven and Sam Hinds   Is this an AI newsroom?

Zizi Papacharissi   The year we rebuild the infrastructure of truth

Jesse Holcomb   Genre erosion in nonprofit journalism

Jean Friedman-Rudovsky and Cassie Haynes   A shift from conversation to action

Ben Collins   We need to learn how to talk to (and about) accidental conspiracists

Natalie Meade   Journalism enters rehab

Mark S. Luckie   Newsrooms and streaming services get cozy

Rick Berke   Virtual events are here to stay

Mike Ananny   Toward better tech journalism

Jeremy Gilbert   Human-centered journalism

Jer Thorp   Fewer pixels, more cardboard

Hossein Derakhshan   Mass personalization of truth

Sonali Prasad   Making disaster journalism that cuts through the noise

Jacqué Palmer   The rise of the plain-text email newsletter

Ariane Bernard   Going solo is still only a path for the few

Andrew Donohue   The rise of the democracy beat

Chase Davis   The year we look beyond The Story

Mandy Jenkins   You build trust by helping your readers

Delia Cai   Subscriptions start working for the middle

Jody Brannon   People won’t renew

Rachel Schallom   The rise of nonprofit journalism continues

Anna Nirmala   Local news orgs grasp the urgency of community roots

Kawandeep Virdee   Goodbye, doomscroll

Parker Molloy   The press will risk elevating a Shadow President Trump

Marcus Mabry   News orgs adapt to a post-Trump world (with Trump still in it)

Gonzalo del Peon   Collaborations expand from newsrooms to the business side

Pia Frey   Building growth through tastemakers and their communities

Julia B. Chan and Kim Bui   Millennials are ready to run things

Francesco Zaffarano   The year we ask the audience what it needs

Joanne McNeil   Newsrooms push back against Ivy League cronyism

Julia Angwin   Show your (computational) work

M. Scott Havens   Traditional pay TV will embrace the disruption

Nico Gendron   Ask your readers to help build your products

Catalina Albeanu   Publish less, listen more

Taylor Lorenz   Journalists will learn influencing isn’t easy

Sue Cross   A global consensus around the kind of news we need to save

Cindy Royal   J-school grads maintain their optimism and adaptability

Jessica Clark   News becomes plural

Edward Roussel   Tech companies get aggressive in local

Richard J. Tofel   Less on politics, more on how government works (or doesn’t)

Patrick Butler   Covid-19 reporting has prepared us for cross-border collaboration

Cory Bergman   The year after a thousand earthquakes

José Zamora   Walking the talk on diversity

Astead W. Herndon   The Trump-sized window of the media caring about race closes again

Andrew Ramsammy   Stop being polite and start getting real

Aaron Foley   Diversity gains haven’t shown up in local news

A.J. Bauer   The year of MAGAcal thinking

Amara Aguilar   Journalism schools emphasize listening

Juleyka Lantigua-Williams   The download, podcasting’s metric king, gets dethroned

Ernie Smith   Entrepreneurship on rails

Ariel Zirulnick   Local newsrooms question their paywalls

Ashton Lattimore   Remote work helps level the playing field in an insular industry

Moreno Cruz Osório   In Brazil, a push for pluralism

Chicas Poderosas   More voices mean better information

Candis Callison   Calling it a crisis isn’t enough (if it ever was)

Tim Carmody   Spotify will make big waves in video

Mike Caulfield   2021’s misinformation will look a lot like 2020’s (and 2019’s, and…)

Talmon Joseph Smith   The media rejects deficit hawkery

Joshua Darr   Legislatures will tackle the local news crisis

Bill Adair   The future of fact-checking is all about structured data

Ryan Kellett   The bundle gets bundled

Brandy Zadrozny   Misinformation fatigue sets in