‘It’s experimentation and innovation with a purpose’

The associate professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism has gained national attention for designing cutting-edge classes, such as “Augmented Reality Storytelling + Journalism,” and a Google Glass class to explore how wearable devices could transform newsgathering and delivery.

Robert Hernandez will be speaking and cooking up recipes from his “mad scientist’s lab” at the Digital Innovators Summit in Berlin, Germany from 20-22 March 2016. 

He did this Q&A with Ulrike Langer in true tech fashion: Live typing his answers on Etherpad while talking via Google Voice.

You’ve coined the term “mad scientist of journalism” for yourself. What does it mean?

The term comes from my long history of experimenting with emerging technologies for journalism. From the very start of my career — which was digital journalism — I have always looked at, well, hijacking technology in ways to benefit journalism. Often new technologies aren’t meant for us… but I feel like I have a skill in viewing them in ways that can be adapted to what we need, whether it is for reporting, storytelling, distribution or revenue. 

I play with AR, VR, wearables, sensors and more and most people think I am crazy…  hence the “mad” part of the term. But I feel like I am testing out these emerging platforms — as a scientist — to see how they can impact (or disrupt) journalism in new ways.

One of my rules, when I give a talk, is that I am a journalist first and a technologist second. All this use of technology is in service of journalism. That, for me, is the goal: journalism that serves my community.

Do you have a set plan in mind when experimenting? 

Actually, I do! I engage with technology when I think it is “ready,” meaning that it is affordable/reachable (or within reason) for newsrooms, can be customized to match an individual newsroom’s mission (or brand) and can be distributed to an open community. Those are the base factors I looked at for AR, VR, wearables, etc. 

Then, once those are there, I know I can begin to explore the tech through differ-ent approaches, like how could I use it for my reporting, storytelling, distribution, etc. I try to be open to what this potential “new form” of journalism can offer, but I always keep in mind those core values of journalism. I try to use the tech in ways that help our journalism.  Basically, it’s not experimentation/innovation because it’s fun or neat. It’s experimentation/innovation with a purpose. 

Here’s a quick example: For Google Glass, the question was “what type of stories can we tell with a small screen in a user’s field of vision? How does this new technology, especially its shape and size, change the shape and size of the storytelling?” I’d rather we, journalists, experiment and learn from this rather than have the tech industry define it for us… they have different mission/goals from what we have.

Legacy media are often late in experimenting with or adopting new tools and platforms. How can they get a better feel for when an emerging technology is ready?

I understand that this is easier said than done for many places, but honestly new organisations — new and old, big or small — can foster a culture of experimentation by giving some space to people who are eager to, well, play… with purpose. Yes, some technology costs money to invest in, but others are free and available to explore now. And, quite honestly, the technology doesn’t matter… that will al-ways change and evolve. What matters is the mindset we have towards the technologies and how we adapt with them. 

For the larger companies, they have to have a person or team dedicated to the emerging technologies coming down the pipe so they can be proactive in the use of it. Waiting for, or worse dismissing, technology prematurely does no one any good. We have to experiment — and fail — with this before it goes mainstream. We need to find early drafts of VR Journalism, VR Journalism, etc. before it goes mainstream… we need to be proactive rather than be reactive.

Do you cooperate with legacy media? Have you reached out to any of them? Have they reached out to you?

Oh yes! Ironically, early on — and even before I became a professor — I reached out to legacy companies to try to, well, preach the possibilities of technology in journalism. But, I found that some organisations don’t want to admit they need help… or are in denial that they are doing it wrong. So, I decided to back off larger companies and work toward empowering their staffers. 

I give out all my information to those (reporters, photographers, editors, etc) that want to be proactive. And this approach has really worked… I see a proactive community that is starting from the bottom up. And I have seen these people be-come managers and leaders in their news organizations, making the culture changes we want to see. 

That said, yes, I have worked with legacy newsrooms since joining USC… I have been embedded in a newsroom and helped them develop and support digital culture. I have often given training to the staff ranging from intro to Twitter to how to use mobile and more. I go where I am invited. There are plenty of people who truly want to improve their digital culture and I’d rather work with the willing than waste my time trying to convince those who, well, don’t want to evolve.

What if a technology goes a different direction than anticipated early on? E.g. Google Glass might now not necessarily be developed into a consumer device anymore. Will media learnings from experimentation still be valuable?

Great question! When Google Glass “died” people were sending me messages hoping that I would recover. One person recently asked me if I regretted the experimentations… they even hinted if I was embarrassed that I worked on Glass. My response was not very nice: Those who don’t see the value in experimenting with technologies like Glass, don’t get it. I learned A LOT through Glass. 

And, whether we like it or not, Glass was incredibly influential to newer technologies. While it is not on your face — yet — micro stories or glance stories are on people’s wrists. My students and I did experiments with how the device can earn your conversation and respond with accurate, timely information to give the user more context… and also combating misinformation.

The thing to remember is the point of experimentation is to learn… I am fortunate that I am at a university rather than a newsroom because I can afford to learn from my failures. And each one of these experiments, with big or small technologies, prepares me for the next. I would argue I am better prepared for VR Journalism thanks to what I learned from Glass.

And, oh, by the way, don’t count a mobile, head mounted display out… it will be coming back. Keep an eye on a company called Magic Leap. AR and wearables is, for me, an inevitable part of our future.

Is there a risk of “too much”? There has been some research, for example, that elaborate multimedia pieces might win journalism prizes but get far less attention from users than they should be getting in terms of how elaborate they were to produce in comparison with traditional articles.

Yes, there is! In terms of people falling in love with technology rather than serving their community through journalism. All this technology is great, but we have to remember it should be in the service of the story… which is in service of our mission… which is to inform our communities.  My goal with technology is to inform our communities by any means (ethical) necessary. 

I don’t care if it is paper or pixels. What I care about is that we are still relevant and serving our communities…. whether our communities are on Facebook or Snapchat, or will be on Virtual Reality… or if they are still reading the paper or watching TV news. 

That said, this isn’t a technology problem, per say… the problem there is when we are distracted by things that keep us for serving our community. For example, some news organisations chase awards rather than try to serve their community. Others may want to continue to do storytelling a certain way because “that’s how we’ve always done it.” We need to keep our mission clear, which is journalism… and do everything we can to stay true to that simple mission: inform our communities. And technology can be a great ally in achieving this.

You co-founded Hacks/Hackers, Los Angeles, bringing journalists and coders together. Does it have a role in all of this?

I was one of a few people that helped create the LA chapter, but I have to admit I was not the driving force. Since it was created some six years ago, it has had some hot and cold moments… but it was recently rebooted by David Caswell, who is doing a great job in bringing the tech and journalism community together. I’ve been active in the ONA LA chapter [Online News Association]. 

I also am active in building virtual communities as well, through #wjchat and the Diversify Journalism Project. The theme I see in my work is bringing people together through technology for journalism… and I want it to be a welcoming community. So, yes, HHLA and others are definitely part of my overall mission.

This is a common but crucial question: Should journalists learn how to code? And how much about code should media executives know? Those who decide how many coders to hire?

For me, it’s not about knowing code to be a developer. For me, it’s more about knowing enough about the craft to respect and understand it. For my students, I want them to know enough code so they know what is possible. It helps wire their brain in a new way that makes them better problem solvers and innovators. For leadership, I think they don’t need to be coders but they have to know what is possible through code. 

The key, for me, is that leaders don’t have to understand coding… but we should not waste time trying to convince them in the value of coding… or the value of mobile… or the value of social… or the value of the Internet. Leadership should hire digital people and let them make those decisions. Trust in the digital team, assuming you hired right.

I do think it benefits everyone in the newsroom to have experience with code so they can demystify the process, but they don’t need to be coders. They do, however, need be educated enough to realize coders need to be seated at the table, like reporters, photographers, etc. etc. Coders can be journalists too. I wrote a Medium post about it: Let Digital Lead.

What are some simple recipes cooked up in the “mad scientist’s lab”?

One of the first places I point people is a website I have curated for more than five years. This is a collection of tools and technologies that are free (or close to it) that people can use to experiment with multimedia and innovation for their storytelling. I recommend people randomly pick a tool, say, once a week or once a month and explore it. Maybe have a lunch talk about a tool or three. 

I don’t advise that you try them all at once… but take your time to explore and reflect on these different tools. Then, when the day comes and news breaks, you’ll be able to use one of these tools without having to learn them on deadline. Bringing people together and buying them lunch so they have time to explore and think about these digital tools helps to build that open, collaborative, digital culture we all say way want. This is an affordable way to do that in any newsroom. 


Robert Hernandez: Web Journalist Blog

Robert Hernandez: Glass Journalism

Robert Hernandez: Dear newsroom leaders: Let. Digital. Lead., Medium, February 23, 2015

Robert Hernandez, Tech, and Tools

AR technology company Magic Leap


Journalism Diversify Project

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