Can Learning learn from the news industry?

[Pre-opening remark: this is a long read.]

I shall open with a statement of the obvious. It is incumbent upon us to seek guidance, inspiration and ideas from outside of our industries. This should not be exclusive behaviour, we all have much to learn from our immediate colleagues too. Very often, however, there are things happening further afield which will help us identify where to make a first incision to cut through the predictable momentum of the status quo. For the learning industries, grappling with digital changes, I think content businesses have some instructive examples to offer.

As I develop this idea, I would like to offer a pre-emptive defence my obviousness. Many of us may have these thoughts and be struggling to make these changes already – I am not claiming novelty. Yet, one visit to the exhibition floor of an eLearning related trade show demonstrates that the impetus to change is not evenly distributed. The floorspace is dominated by LMS vendors (of many stripes), authoring tool providers and content agencies. This is where the money resides and where the customers budgets are pointed. It can be hard to see where innovation might come from.

In my past, I have spent time in the search engine industry and in broadcast media (including news media). There are lessons for the learning world from both, I believe. It is the news business, as a content endeavour, that I would like to look at though to see where a lesson or two for learning types may reside.

Grappling with SEO and displacement

I recall representing search engines at a media conference in the early 2000’s. The audience was mainly journalists and traditional media owners. They were unanimously frustrated by the low ranking their stories and content received in search results. SEO was a new discipline and the conventional wisdom stated that established media brands are trusted and should be prominent. Very often bloggers and independent content publishers would win out, with higher ranking due to the linking and meta data they instinctively applied as they worked. It was more relevant.

This was an unpopular conclusion to offer to the audience. It still resonates now, despite traditional media addressing the issue, in the main. For learning content producers and publishers, the lesson is about respecting the modes of discovery of your audience. We are not the only people defining relevance and our audience’s definition is always the right one. How many times has an “unofficial” YouTube video beaten out the genuine article, carefully created by approved experts and risen to the top of the ranking?

The destination, a destination or no destination?

Whatever traditional or mainstream news media is, it has an ongoing struggle with finding and retaining an audience. Historically, a news business had its paper, broadcast channels, website outlets and later, apps. The commercial logic required driving as large an audience as possible to these channels and keeping it there. (Website home pages were paramount resources at this time). Now news businesses need to find their traffic in a constantly evolving landscape in which social media have outstripped search by some margin as sources of news.  A website, or content portal if you like, is only one location for users. Other places need to be cultivated, such as WhatsApp groups and Facebook pages, as points of consumption or as distribution points to the central mothership. Content businesses have also grown with no dedicated destination on YouTube, for example. News services are also experimenting with only publishing on social media outlets, although the economics are unsteady, so far. News businesses have recognised that stories need to be found where audiences live, rather than persuading them t ive where you publish.

The learning world can look to these experiments and responses as useful options. Learning folks do like to produce content and content portals offer a seemingly endless repository for our creations. It is difficult, however, to make a learning resource an habitual destination. The imperative to find users and place content where they work and spend time is pressing. Distributing and promoting content across social channels is crucial, as is cross publishing on intranets, knowledge management services and emails. Arguably, as long as content usage is measured and the user can attribute it accurately to the creator, it does not matter where they find it and use it. This tide is too strong to fight.

One client is already moving their events activity onto Facebook Workplace, following the greater popularity and response on that platform. Service your audience where they reside.

It is not your community, it’s theirs

Most journalists I have worked with have been in thrall to Twitter and probably still are. It changed their game entirely. They arrived late to Facebook as a news resource but have started to get to grips with it as it swallows the world and other social platforms. In the earlier days of social networks, media owners and journalists used the networks as distribution channels only, favouring a one way pattern of usage over conversation. Gradually, as social media wisdom grew and depth of activity and loyalty could be more accurately measured, the realisation dawned that users prefer to be involved and are in control. These are not broadcast channels. Readership and community are not the same things.

Learning professionals are alive to social media and a great deal of thought and activity is focused on these platform as indispensable tools for learning. We do need to be alive to that broadcast mode of use still, I fear. Social tools are not only content distribution tools. At their best they are conversational and we cannot own that conversation in the way we may claim ownership of other spaces. Any social space that users appear in is theirs as much as ours and clumsy attempts at control need to be avoided. I suspect this is a greater risk in corporate social environments where ownership can be distorted simpley by the presence of the logo at the top of the screen.

Trust and fakery

What the news industry is now wrestling with in the world of social media is more existential. Trust is eroding rapidly as accusations of fakery and willful falsehood pollute public life. Expertise might not reliably signal authority as accusations of vested interest and bias are bandied around with little or no support. Troubling times. Fact checking and verification, once hygiene factors in journalistic production and investigation, are now services for readers.

As yet, the implications for learning are unclear (unclear to me anyway). Academics are freely targeted as sources of undesirable and unreliable ideas, their credentials treated with some suspicion. False prophets and bots are stinking up the world of news as we start to trust what we prefer and are manipulated in sophisticated ways. I have heard anecdotal evidence of mistrust of ‘corporate postings’ on workplace social platforms alongside the more frequent challenges against usefulness and relevance. Learning folks need to be alive to this change. We are right to value social tools and we need to guard their value in the gathering gloom. How expertise is presented needs some careful attention – direct access to experts is not the innocent experience it once was. Perhaps fact checking and verification signals can become part of the experience?

Breaking news

With each technological advance, news organisations have needed to respond to what “current” means. The daily news cycle is a quaint memory, replaced by rolling news and now by immediate coverage of events from smart phone touting witnesses as a matter of course. The definition of up to date is pretty much up to the minute now. Journalists are torn between speed of coverage and value and accuracy in reporting.

Learning professionals are unlikely to need to be current in quite this way. There is a growing pressure, though, from what users judge as new. Whilst we should not be too easily lead by a common definition of current, we probably don’t want to be drawn into defensive positions against curating old news either. I suspect this balance will need to be struck and re-struck as we feel our way forward. As always, the users definition of what is fresh and current will prevail, as usual, they are right.

Who is a journalist anyway?

This is probably the most troubling challenge for news organisations. The training and experience required to earn journalistic credentials are no longer a requisite in writing/videoing/recording, sharing and commenting on ‘the news’. We are all makers and spreaders of news now. There is little or no difference between a Facebook posting from a family member and one from the newsroom. We can all produce, post and share text, video and audio at a moments notice with checking with an editor or filing our copy. The news is now spread without the need for news organisations or the workforce the employ. We are as more likely to see a Tweet and video from a breaking news story or event before a news organisation can get there (with the attendant problems of verification and veracity).

What is the meaningful role of a new business in these circumstances? Commentary, analysis and sense-making seem like solid territory on which to build and useful new roles for the editorial brains to play. News businesses are now routinely packaging social media content from witnesses as part of their coverage – adding commentary and recognising that no workforce can compete with this newsgathering reach.

Learning professionals need to think hard about this. Not too long ago, it was harder to learn something without the intervention of a learning specialist and the services we manage. The reverse is now becoming true as learning services become less significant – even for the learning folks ourselves. It is easy to find reliable and well produced instructional content, expertise and experience is available directly and the formality of linear courses and events are ageing quickly. I believe that getting out of the way is a valuable response. Finding the equivalent activity to analysis and sense making is probably a good answer to mimic the news organisations but these are very different patterns of production and intervention.

Content shapes and sizes

Content formats are not what they used to be for journalists. An article for a newspaper website has been nudged into new shapes by blogs, a film for a TV outlet had to make way for viewing on the web and then on the phone. Everything needs to be shareable. The smartphone is the primary consumption device and one of the most useful tools for gathering and producing news content. Vertical video is now a thing (a real horror for the broadcast journalist).  And, everything is getting shorter. (Much shorter than this blog).

Many editorial voices have bemoaned the reduction of news stories to bitesize chunks to fit these new modes of use. Most have also realised the strength of the tide and swum with it in the end. News outlets have tried Vine, SnapChat, Facebook Live and will continue to try the next big thing.

Learning folks are alive to these developments, of course, but I fear that we are still deeply wedded to the course in the LMS as our primary format. It does not really work any more (if it ever did). We need to find new formats that respect the need for brevity and portability and also draw users in to experiences that justify greater attention over time. The advent of the long read (or its renaissance) indicates demand for the role of considered commentator and guide – a valuable role beyond breaking news stories. The rise of the playlist seems like a good nook to explore as well – Spotify is establishing a new role in the music industry alongside broadcast radio. We seem to like it, so far.The editorial voice can be expressed in a different context, not needing to carry the creation of the entire narrative.

And so…

None of the above observations are new or surprising. Perhaps, it is most useful to consider them as a whole and reflect on the fundamental changes to the operation of news production and publishing. An entire new industry is emerging from the new environment with new businesses offering new products and services. The news organisation is no longer required to own the printing press and the broadcast towers to reach its audience and inform them. Likewise, a learner no longer needs to rely on the mechanisms of a learning organisation to develop skills and understanding. Nor do they need to enlist the services of a trainer or instructional designer.

I think the news industry has travelled further faster and we could do worse than monitoring what they do next. News businesses have a commercial imperative to consider that most learning folks are insulated from. Sources of revenue are under pressure and readership does not match sales in the way it used to. Arguably, we are freer to experiment but slower to do so.


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