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Only smart engineering will save the media industry, by CNN’s Robyn Peterson

By Robyn Peterson, CNN Chief Technology Officer

Never has there been a more important time for journalism. Facts, the foundational building blocks of journalism, are under siege, in a number of ways and from a multitude of directions. When trust in facts declines, the conversation can sometimes feel as if it’s sinking into a fog. Journalists are our guides through the haze: They are the watchdogs of truth, and we need their work more than ever to give us the foundations on which to evaluate new points of view that push our current way of thinking and the adversarial opinions that challenge those in power.

And we, as technologists, need to bring their great stories, be they text or video, to our audiences in a way that’s fast, smart, easy-to-access, and we must do it in a manner that’s sustainable. Which means we need to rethink our current modes of operation, business models and priorities.

The big tech companies have set new standards for user experience, and the minimum levels of what a consumer expects are often above the line for what media companies can provide. Why? Because many media companies have outsourced their product and technology strategy to social networks, search engines and tech companies with different priorities and goals, and have thereby borrowed against their future for short term gains.

It is of the utmost importance for media companies to take their future into their own hands by prioritizing product and technology to fit their own business strategy and not someone else’s.

At the core, media companies need to think and operate like tech companies: They need to put the consumer first. And that requires them to have a deep understanding of, and be able to build a relationship with, each user. In other words, good data is foundational, but so is having an ability to act upon that data. This is a muscle that most media companies don’t have. To build this muscle, they need to hire product managers with deep data experience, and staff up a team that contains the engineers who specialize in data platforms and recommendations.

The democratization of artificial intelligence is critical to the advancement of digital news products and experiences – especially since audiences now have a baseline expectation for customization and personalization. It’s not only about creating content to meet a “one size fits all” experience anymore; Rather, it’s about how that content can be delivered and the intelligence behind that distribution. And a great experience extends to making the best environment for advertisers and brands, who are eager to deliver positive, great experiences to their customers.

Consumer experiences are multi-device, and each device has its role that may vary from user to user. But patterns do exist. Someone may prefer headlines and alerts on their phone, then dive into features on a laptop, but catch up on long-form video on their smart TV. Knowing your consumers, and how they want to consume your content, is a vital prerequisite to building the best consumer experiences to satisfy their needs.

I am fortunate to be part of a team at CNN that prioritizes the consumer above everything else. We are steadfast in our understanding that we must continue to invest heavily in product and technology in order to innovate and drive growth. We have built – and continue to build – a product and technology team that works to power user experiences for hundreds of millions of people all over the world to engage with our journalism, storytelling and services. They are committed to breaking down the walls between our content, audiences and advertisers to ensure CNN serves the best interests.

So how do we know what to build? That’s a question I’m often asked, and it’s one that has become harder and harder to answer. I often feel like my job is like playing with Legos – it’s all about stacking new things up, testing them with consumers, and investing in what works. But just like with Legos, it’s more interesting working with a group, than by yourself. With news, it’s important to have a cross-functional team that truly collaborates and thinks holistically.

Consumers are going to continue to demand and expect instantaneous, personally relevant, and seamless experiences whenever they want it and wherever they are.

Some journalism organizations will rise to the challenge. Others will stumble.

In order to survive, we – the media – need to be the ones that are building user experiences and relationships directly with our users. It’s critical to our survival, and the survival of our society.

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