“Fact and truth are very different things”

What digital and decentralised means for the news

Alan Soon keeps his finger firmly on the pulse.

As founder and CEO of The Splice Newsroom he is a devoted observer of digital developments in the media sphere. Backed by knowledge drawn from two decades of experience across media functions in Asia Pacific, he is well qualified to give insight into journalistic and publishing trends as the expansion of digital distribution, content algorithms and dubious information sources shape our understanding of media.

He spoke to Communication Director about how technology reveals true diversity of opinion, the next steps in newsroom innovation and why publishers should be doing more with their content than simply pursuing page views.

The Splice Newsroom was designed to solve a problem: "getting newsrooms to adapt and evolve in the ongoing shift to digital." Where do you see newsrooms going wrong in the shift to digital?

The biggest problem is that of utility and service — what exactly is the role of media today? What is the service and value that is created by journalism? I’ve worked with many media CEOs are they’re all lost on that question. Things were easier when it was a matter of putting out a daily newspaper or a broadcast. Today, there’s just so much competing for people’s attention and yet we still can’t articulate what we do as a service.

A persuasive argument for the growth in popularity of fake news and extremist views is that they have conquered the online space left vacant by the failure of mainstream media to efficiently operate in the digital realm: what do you think about this argument?

That’s somewhat simplistic I think. Social media has fragmented public consciousness — there’s no longer a mainstream view of things because technology is revealing what was always true about people: we’re diverse, we have different points of view, and more often than not, it’s easier for us to continue with our beliefs than to challenge them with facts. It’s unfortunate that we never understood this when we were under the umbrella of “mainstream” media. We always assumed that everyone else is like us. Technology by its nature decentralises. And we’re starting to see the effects of that on society. Fact and truth are very different things. Traditional media hasn’t figured out how to present this in an asymmetrical structure.

The Splice weekly wrap of the media landscape is described as human-curated and "algo-free." Can you explain how you keep your newsroom free of algorithms?

There are two schools of thought at play here. One says you should always use algos to scale. Another says you should do what’s hard to scale because that creates a barrier to entry. For my newsletter, I’m going with the latter. I believe the only way to achieve flow and voice is to manually assemble it. 

Are people – media professionals as much as the general public – sufficiently educated on the dangers of algorithms?

I don’t think anyone has figured out the full implications of algos. We’ve only just started.

Your weekly roundup newsletter covers trends, tool and threats. In which areas are media companies looking to innovate in 2017?

I think we’ll continue to see improvements in automation, thanks in part to AI and machine learning. We should automate as much as we can so that journalists can go out and do what they do best — uncover stories. 

At ICEEfest 2016 you spoke on “Death by a million page views: how the mindless pursuit of reach is killing publishers”. Can you sum up your argument for us?

It’s basically this: Every single publisher out there is busy churning out more content. They’re assuming that the more articles you put out, the wider your reach. There’s a theoretical limit to this for a couple of reasons: We all have 24 hours in a day and we don’t spend every minute of it reading more articles. Also, mass market content these days is primarily driven through social media. Discovery is limited. We’ve reached peak content. I have a hundred things that are vying for my attention the moment I unlock my phone. So why are we continuing to throw more pieces of content at people? Publishers have been pushing for more page views from the first day when they figured out how to measure them. We’re obsessed with generating more content to grab more page views instead of spending resources on improving the quality and discoverability of content. 2017 will be the year when the mass media model starts to implode. Mass media is dead. 

Image: Thinkstock

Alan Soon

Alan Soon is the founder and CEO of The Splice Newsroom, an editorial consultancy that is helping newsrooms keep up with the constant change brought on by the digital shift. For more than 20 years, he's worked in radio, TV, news wires, magazine and online across the region. He started out as a reporter and grew into producer, editor, newsroom manager and eventually business leadership roles. In his last position, Alan led one of the largest digital news teams in the industry as Yahoo’s managing editor for India and Southeast Asia. He also worked at esteemed newsrooms such as CNBC and Bloomberg across Asia. He is a co-founder of the Online News Association in Singapore.