03 December 2015
Karen Burke and Marianne Bouchart
After leading one of the largest digital news teams in the industry as Yahoo’s Managing Editor for India and Southeast Asia, Alan Soon launched The Splice Newsroom in April this year - an editorial consultancy that helps transform and modernise newsrooms.
In this interview with GEN, Alan shares his insights into newsroom trends, the future of robot journalism and what role startups like The Splice Newsroom can play in helping news organisations make the digital switch.
Update: Changes of style and story angle were made in this article on 8 December 2015.
Why did you decide to launch an editorial consultancy helping newsrooms to transform and modernise?
Splice exists for one reason: there’s a fundamental need to evolve in newsrooms — on everything from strategy to operations to talent. At Yahoo, I saw firsthand how quickly things were moving because of the relentless shift to digital.
I was working closely with our partners in the region — newspapers, TV, magazines, newswires — and they all had the same need: a strategic culture change that would pivot the company towards digital.
It’s worrying to see that many traditional newsrooms in Asia still aren’t concerned enough about where things are headed.
A big part of this is structural in this region: there are media monopolies, protected telecommunications sectors and media newsrooms that are owned by big conglomerates.
I want to make sure I’m transferring what I’ve learned to the rest of the industry.
Splice is still a very new company, only about six months old, so we’re focusing our work on Asia for now. That said, I’m very keen to see what I can do to help newsrooms in other parts of the world.
The Splice Newroom launched in April 2015
Splice Newsroom’s method is to look at four key areas: people, culture, tools and workflow. Can you explain how important each of these areas is for newsrooms wanting to make a digital shift?
It’s all about connecting soft skills with hard skills. People and culture are the soft skills that you bring into the newsroom. Or it’s something you grow over time. Tools and workflow are hard skills: What do you need to get the job done? How do you piece your operational processes together to achieve maximum efficiency and effectiveness? You can’t have one without the other. And that makes Splice unique: we look at issues from both parts of the equation.
What is the biggest challenge that newsrooms are facing today and the first area on which they ask for help?
Revenue is the biggest worry. We’ve been hit by a number of structural changes over the past year: an accelerated shift from desktop to mobile; an entrenched distributed content strategy where you’re now focused on targeting audiences on a third party site such as Facebook; and the rise of ad blocking. The industry barely had time to deal with the shift to mobile. Newsrooms are feeling overwhelmed by all of these changes.
What are the differences between newsrooms in Asia and newsrooms in Europe/North America in terms of modernising?
The fundamental shift is seen in the speed of the shift to mobile for consumers — people are coming to the internet for the first time. In Asia, it’s not just mobile first, but mobile only. The desktop experience is irrelevant in many countries in Asia. There are markets where people are skipping the PC altogether.
What trends are you seeing?
Apart from those above, we’re starting to see more interest around the use of collaborative platforms such as Slack. It’s much more than just a simple chatroom. I think in the next two years or so, you’ll see Slack emerge as an operating system on which newsrooms build bots. You’re going to see more automation.
For example, imagine this: Every time a major breaking news happens, an alert automatically triggers in Slack. The bot sees it, and notifies the right people on the desk. It also takes it a step further — it automatically informs the desk about stringers, freelancers and fixers operating in the area where the news broke. Wouldn’t that help? It’s coming.
Along these lines, while we should have a bot that scans the wires for breaking stories, it should also automatically figure out exactly if it’s an earthquake, bombing, a cut in interest rates, or the result of a football game — and based on that, notify the right editorial desk and team for follow up actions. If it’s an earthquake, it should automatically pull up seismic data from authoritative sources. If it’s a tennis match, the bot should automatically input the score into a scoreboard for sharing on Facebook. These are things that journalists do instinctively as part of breaking news. Why shouldn’t a bot do that for us?
In your last position, you led one of the largest digital news teams in the industry as Yahoo’s Managing Editor for India and Southeast Asia. You’ve also worked at esteemed newsrooms such as CNBC and Bloomberg across Asia. How is this experience guiding your vision?
My experience has been invaluable in helping me to bridge newsroom operations with management, business and strategy. I feel fortunate in this. As a former reporter, producer and editor, I’m familiar with what teams go through to get the story covered and getting it on air or published. I understand the tools and the pain points. Having run the editorial business at Yahoo, I learned strategy, partnerships and distribution. I couldn’t be more thankful for the experience. I want to help the industry bridge the gap.
What are your aims for Splice Newsroom for the next year?
I’m starting to explore the idea of forming a dedicated media accelerator. I think there’s a lot that can be done at the junction of tech and media, especially in a region like Asia. I believe that with the right frameworks in place, we can truly catalyse the ecosystem. There are lots of interesting ideas in this region that need a bit of coaching to shine. I’m looking for ways to fund this. And I’m looking for partners to make this happen.