How the Personalisation of News Will Save Journalism (if it doesn’t kill it first)

With each successive advance in news technology, it becomes harder to separate the seismic shift from the passing fad, the silver bullet from another kick in the teeth, and the winner from the loser.

And so it seems with the personalisation of news. The power to customize content to the individual’s preference is simultaneously threatening and liberating. Fear of unintended consequences goes hand in hand with fear of missing out.

When it comes to getting news, most people now trust themselves more than they trust journalists. The Reuters Institute Digital News Report found that personalised recommendations based on the individual’s past consumption of news were preferred by users in almost every country surveyed.

However, what if that is the right answer to the wrong question?

Today, the dominant version of personalisation is the clandestine version offered by the big tech platforms (and embraced by some ad-funded publishers). What if the user had an alternative to choose from?

What has become synonymous with personalized news is, in fact, targeted advertising masquerading as user empowerment. The optimization of the individual’s news feed is merely the by-product of a commercial process.

The individual is a consumer, and their consciousness is reduced to past consumption. The ‘personalised’ recommendations are based on how you will likely react to the content, rather than its objective quality. The North Star metric of success is not the editorial quality of the news feed, but its ability to keep you scrolling.

The dangers for society are well documented. Personalised news is an unproductive time suck, delivering the individual into the warm embrace of the echo chamber, eroding the common ground of political discourse, and undermining the authority of quality journalism.

So, to my original question: what if another personalised future was possible?

That’s the challenge facing the team of designers, journalists and developers here at Neva Labs. We’re exploring new solutions that would empower the individual to take control of their news experience and consciously align it with their personal goals.

Any new approach to personalisation involves fresh thinking about a range of user experience and machine learning challenges. But it also requires a leap of imagination into a future where journalism is defined solely by its relationship to the empowered individual.

In a society defined by informational overload and filter failure, empowered individuals need journalism to give them agency in the face of unlimited choice. In this sense, news is consciousness-raising rather than a mass-produced digital commodity.

The challenge for publishers is to think about their products as a range of distinctive filters and lenses, which give the user confidence in their ability to master a complex world. The research tells us that a key element of trust is benevolence. In other words, we trust those who have our backs. We trust those who have no vested interests as they help us navigate the world around us.

If journalism can deliver this sense of benevolent consciousness, then it has solid foundations on which to build a new business model. News for the empowered individual is deep, meaningful engagement and direct user revenue.

Our objective at NevaLabs is to build solutions for journalists and publishers willing to invest in their relationship with the empowered individual. As we set out to create a new model of purposeful personalisation, we’re keeping a set of broad principles firmly fixed in our minds:

No agenda but yours: The empowered individual must have confidence that the news they consume is free of hidden filters, incentives and surveillance. They will expect to pay for a transparent, relevant and valuable news feed. It will not be funded by advertising.

An end to mindless scroll: By removing advertising as the primary driver of personalized news, you remove the incentive to keep the user locked in endless scroll. The North Star metric would be maximum return on attention. Success is ‘time well spent’ (to quote Tristan Harris). The digital experiences that make us happiest are those that require less time (as this wonderful data set tells us).

Trust through transparency: We believe that the empowered individual should have control over the filters that shape their newsfeed. Wherever machine learning is used to optimize news discover, there should be clear guidance to the user on how that works, and options to adjust or reverse these filters. Agency is trust.

Challenge, surprise and inform: By definition, news recommendations based on your past consumption patterns will rarely challenge, surprise or teach you something new. We make the assumption that the empowered individual will make choices based on the person they want to be. They will choose to be challenged, surprised and informed by a diverse range of views and sources.

You’ll notice that our principles are based on a single fundamental assumption — people will choose better outcomes, when given the choice. To those who feel this is a little naïve, consider the unsustainable assumptions on which the current alternative is built.

The surveys tell us people are happy with how platforms and publishers currently personalise news. But they also reveal that most people are unaware their personal news feeds are filtered by an algorithm. They are also largely unaware of the extent to which they are tracked, monitored and nudged by the hidden hand of advertising technology.

Awareness is growing. “Concerns over both filter bubbles and algorithmic discrimination are clearly widespread,” says the Reuters Institute, “even as people say that personalised news is a good way to get news.” More importantly, behaviour is changing. Increasing numbers of internet users adjust privacy settings, block advertising or decide to pay for news direct from the source.

But even if you assume, as we do, that the time is right for an alternative form of conscious personalisation, how can we be sure it will necessarily have better outcomes for society and journalism?

At NevaLabs, we have some ideas. We’ve been looking to the rising popularity of apps that help users achieve better outcomes in diet, exercise, sleep and mental health, what psychologists might call the search for the ‘actualised self’. US digital consumers spent almost $1.7 billion on fitness apps alone in 2016.

These apps are successful not because they are prescriptive. Their primary value is to expose the difference between the current reality and the intended outcome, and only then suggest a course of action to bridge the gap. At NevaLabs, we feel the same approach could help an empowered news user to map a pathway toward maximum return on their attention.

We’re also intrigued by the challenge of opening minds that appear permanently closed to ideas from outside their filter bubbles. The research tells us that people who resist new ideas from people they don’t know have a greater openness to people with whom they share an affinity. We are excited to explore the potential for this kind of ‘collaborative filtering’ to be incorporated into new models of personalisation.

Perhaps the most exciting challenge is how we persuade the news industry that a new form of purposeful personalisation is the cure to what ails it, not another kick in the teeth.

My gut tells me that personalisation will become an even bigger challenge for publishers and broadcasters as they struggle to cope with changing user expectations, artificial intelligence, voice-activated search, data protection and privacy. But my fear is that the news business will sleepwalk into a form of personalisation that further degrades its bonds with users and increases its dependence on advertising.

My hope is that journalists will realise the historic opportunities that will emerge from deeper engagement with the empowered individual. I would like to see the news business orient itself around that new North Star of Return on Attention. I want NevaLabs to support those who are already building the tools and filters that restore trust, add value and deepen loyalty between journalists and user.

Finally, to those in the news industry who still find it hard to work out the difference between the winners and loser in the age of disruption, the answer is easier than you think. The losers will continue to offer everything to everybody. The winners will focus on what makes them relevant to an empowered somebody.