Jonathan Kealing from INN

What are the biggest decisions people working in public media tech have to make? If there was a decision they could change, what would it be? 

In our fortnightly webinar series from the Public Media Stack, we explore the art (and science) of making tech decisions with some of public media’s prominent voices. We’ll ask them five simple questions and unpack the issues that universally affect our industry – problems with workflow, the relationship between newsrooms and tech teams, reader engagement innovation, funding diversification – as well as the presence of and reliance on Big Tech and the efforts to create alternative ecosystems. 

On Monday October 5th we were joined by Jonathan Kealing, Chief Network Officer at the Institute for Non-Profit News.  The video of the full webinar is below, and we’ve picked some of our favourite quotes from the interview.

How underfunded tech strategies can hamper small news organizations

It’s something I bump my head up against on a regular basis. A lot of times there will be a distribution opportunity, but in order for [INN] members to take advantage of it, their tech needs to be in at least a baseline shape where they can push the content in a structured and segmented way to the organization that wants to reuse it. The smaller and even some of the mid-sized organizations, just aren’t well situated to push their content to third party platforms. They almost all have RSS feeds, but they have varying levels of quality and tags within those feeds that can make it easier or harder to manage. We’ve tried to think about whether there’s a way we could serve as a central hub to pull their content in and mark it up in a standard way and push it out. But it’s a pretty big expense and not an expense that I see a lot of people clamouring to pay for, so we haven’t found the silver bullet.

On the benefits of using WordPress and an open source approach

Over the last year or so we’ve spent a considerable amount of time building out our republication tracker tool as an open source WordPress module, so that anyone can add that plugin to their WordPress install. Then you have easy republication tools right from the website; you can pull in the traffic from other websites into your WordPress database or Google Analytics. We’ve seen some good adoption. This isn’t deep crazy technology but it’s something that for mission-driven organizations where maintaining access to your own content isn’t the end all be all, having your content get reach and being able to measure that reach, it’s been a big goal for us.

On INN’s next big challenge and how AI could help

How do we standardize and raise the quality of content feeding across our network? It becomes a bigger challenge with every member that we add. How do we slice and dice that content and make it available to the right people for the right additional uses? Some of the AI platforms out there can help us. I feel like as AI matures, some of the human curation side of things that have challenged us are finally coming into view; and the challenge that remains is how do we ingest, sort and standardize all the content that our members have, so that it can be piped through an AI engine and then pumped out to interested distribution partners.

On why bespoke and custom CMS can cause more trouble than they’re worth

We’re in an industry where everyone feels their needs are bespoke and custom. I think every decision I’ve ever made that created something bespoke and custom was probably a mistake, because it led into a cul de sac from which the return was always painful and unpleasant. We created a highly customised Drupal CMS at a previous place of employment and that became an anchor around our neck for years. It comes with really unfortunate side effects – you end up throwing away a big chunk of your archive or you lose something just because you wound up in this custom land. I’m a big believer in standard, open source, widely available content.

The need for a piece of tech to ‘bucket’: to take in, sort and republish content

It’s the thing that challenges news organizations the most. I’ve been part of decisions on CMS builds where we’ve spent thousands of dollars on the tech to output this. I would love to have this made easier. There’s not a lot of commonality at the high end; and at the low end there’s just a lot of inattention to structure. Things just get mushed together, so when you’re trying to work with large global platforms, they need things in very specific ways and they can’t take the mush because it won’t look like anything else they have on their platforms. One of my colleagues is working with a platform called Feedly, which has an AI layer that we’ve started training to try and sort already well-structured content. It’s not perfect, there are some output issues we’re still trying to wrap our heads around. But when you have a network of 300 organizations, you have to think of how technology can make it easier for you to sort things into buckets.

Why investing in tech is crucial

Don’t underinvest in your technology. I know it feels off mission and you have to create the content in order to exist – but underinvesting in technology will have costs and will hamper your growth into the future. Without sufficient investment in technology you can’t convert your audience into subscribers or donors or supporters. Without sufficient investment in technology you can’t access the wealth of resources within your own archive; you waste time creating content. Time is the ultimate commodity – you can raise more money, you can create more content, you can’t raise or create more time. Every time you wait 63 seconds for that save to go through, or you wait 50 seconds to load your new content piece page, it’s time that’s lost that could be invested in something else. Over the course of a week, a month, a year, you’re losing real time and we can’t do anything to get that back. Figure out how much you want to invest in technology then invest 30% more. That’s going to pay off in the long run in ways you can’t even imagine.