Here’s what’s happening at MIT Technology Review
She spoke to Jon Watkins ahead of FIPP London (10-11 May), where she’ll be one of the speakers in the FIPP Tech channel (final registration options for FIPP London are available here).
Tell us about your role and what you were brought in to achieve…
I joined MIT at the end of November last year and the rationale for bringing me in was that the MIT wanted to take this legacy publication – the very first technology publication, established in 1899 – and really begin to do something much more dramatic and noticeable in the marketplace. I had moved back to the US from London, having worked for five years at The Economist, and was looking for a new adventure. This seemed like a really exciting opportunity to create something that doesn’t currently exist – something that sits between mass-market or consumer-interest technology publications, brands such as Wired or TechCrunch, and academic publications that might be publishing research coming out of the labs. Generally speaking, non-academic people don’t read academic literature; serious people ‘don’t’ really read Wired. I mean, they might read it for enjoyment, but it’s not really in the same way that we want MIT Technology Review to be. So it felt to me like there was a gap in between those two poles – both smart and accessible.
What was interesting was that MIT Technology Review was following the latest in emerging technologies – I’m talking about robotics, about bioengineering, things that are really just emerging from laboratories – very cool, really early stuff. But most the coverage of was being done in a very traditional, very print-oriented way. There were big changes afoot, to be sure, but things were moving slowly and often painfully. I came to help.
As I mentioned, I arrived here from The Economist. The Economist is doing pretty well with digital for a title of its size and history. It’s not Quartz, and it’s certainly not BuzzFeed or any of the brands that were born in the digital world; but it is doing a lot of interesting things. Yet here, at MIT of all places, the digital future was not manifest in the publication. So it was an interesting paradox.
It sounds like your role is actually a complete reassessment or revisiting of what you want to be and what you want MIT Technology Review to achieve, rather than just taking a traditionally print product and making it multiplatform…?
Yes, 100 per cent. We know we are not going to ‘out Condé Nast’ Condé Nast’ – that’s not the game that we’re going to play. But what we can do better than anybody else in our space is draw on the unique strategic assets of MIT, which are profound. That is not an overstatement. We have access to Nobel Prize winners, people who will be Nobel Prize winners, respected voices on the most important technologies and innovations that will be developed in our lifetime. We stand in this industry supported by no less than the world-class reputation and status of MIT. In the publishing industry you can appreciate that that is quite a bit. But we need to ensure we build on it intelligently.
Is that a big shift for you? And did you meet resistance?
Oh, the cultural shift has been huge, and sure, there has been some resistance. It’s a transformation that’s only about five months old, right? But what I’m more than fortunate to have is the support of the Board and of the other senior leaders of the business. It’s not without its challenges – people are asking ‘What does this actually mean?’ and ‘What if it doesn’t work?’. We’re going to be working on this for a good five years and we are all trying to take the long view.
You have a really interesting situation where you’re being driven to change by technological development and, of course, tech is your space. Tech is really driving you to change but it’s also your land opportunity…?
We are sitting here in the centre of MIT. I look out the window of my office and I can see all kinds of laboratories and factories, very smart, creative people all over the place. What I’m interested in figuring out is how to harness that brainpower to use it for the business. There’s probably somebody around here who’s doing something really special with, let’s say, 3D printing, that could be useful in my product. There are people who are doing things with augmented reality here that we want to use to deliver our content. How do I tap into that? We want to report on this world and also inhabit it.
Are you already starting to see results of your transformation?
Oh, absolutely. The stuff we have done so far has been taking advantage of the low-hanging fruit, of course. But with the harder-to-reach fruit also, I’m having a lot of fun working with the team to figure out how to get at it. People are experimenting and stepping out to build on our community and I’m confident we are on a solid path.
Join Elizabeth, more than 50 other speakers and delegates from at least 29 countries for FIPP London (10-11 May). Final registration options are available here. Elizabeth’s session is in FIPP Tech from 11:30-12:00, on May 10, where she will share more not only about how the brand plans to build on technology as a subject matter, but how they see technology itself move the brand forward. See the full FIPP London agenda here.
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