Is Journalism still journalism if it tries to do PR too?What's the best way to segment your audience so you can product content that really speaks to them?Does academia need to be brought closer to business and the media?I got interesting answers to all these questions and many more in a recent interview with Margarita Khartanovich on the Digital Media Growth Podcast.Margarita is the head of insight at Binary District, Editor-in-Chief at Binary District Journal and a PhD candidate in Journalism at Tampere University.We also discussed:
- What it means to produce quality content in tech journalism
- How publishing can work in synergy with an events and Elearning business
- The potential of syndication
- The rise of new technologies like AI and their impact on media
- The slow news movement
- Margarita's advice for media entrepreneurs and publishers to thrive in the future
It was a great conversation. You can have a listen:
Or if you prefer to read - dive in to the full transcript below to get some food for thought. Enjoy!
Hey Margarita, who are you and what do you do?
Well, I started as a linguist and then it spread around similar fields - PR and then journalism and nowadays I'm almost completely swimming in journalistic seas. Around five years ago, I got into blockchain and IOT and all these other new technologies that just started piling up and that's how I started my career in tech writing. At the same time, I'm doing my PhD in journalism at the University of Tampere in Finland. That's not related to tech writing rather to global crisis reporting, how things are in the digital age in terms of quality journalism and many other trends. So basically I’m just trying to balance between work and studying.
I imagine that can be challenging to balance sometimes. Do you get many insights from your PhD work that actually help you on a practical level in your work?
I would say in terms of quality quite a lot because nowadays it's so easy to become a journalist, right? Of course, we can debate whether bloggers who thought, ‘Okay, I have this website and I’ll cover these stories’ should be considered journalists or not. If you look at this from a theoretical perspective, we probably wouldn't consider that journalism unless it fits several criteria. For me, the number one criteria is quality. Quality in journalism is something that is very honest in terms of how true things are the way you say them and whether you have any hidden agenda in covering particular stories in a particular way.For example, in the crypto space, things are not particularly honest and they're often not strictly journalism. I would say that the news stories are treated as a marketing tool. Media publications are created to promote a particular agenda or to manipulate the market and so forth. Those are the things that I saw working at certain publications; I'm not going to name them now.I just had this idea that I will use my journalistic ethics and my knowledge or theoretical sides of journalism in creating something new, something that wouldn't have a hidden agenda. I’d speak to the masterminds of the technologies, the brains behind this technology - the developers and researchers - because that's where the quality is. It's not translated through the mouths of marketing people or even CEOs of the companies, it's rather people that create the technologies, who have the most interesting ideas on this technology. That's my perspective on the whole thing.
Tell me about Binary District. What is it, what is its history and who is it for?
Well, it started mostly as an initiative for researchers and developers to bring something different to tech events. We realized that technology might not be the easiest topic for the audience, but we needed to adapt. We needed to find a balance between making it hardcore - like really hard tech talks, deep dives and so forth - and keeping it interesting and appealing to a broad audience. That's what we were doing with a number of our workshops and conferences and meet-ups. We wanted people to meet those who develop technology and understand the inner world of technology. Also connecting those tech people with business-thinking people and also the general public so that they could test their ideas, get feedback and at the same time the audience and businesses would gain insight. Those were the key purposes that we had in mind.Binary District journal started as, in a way, the face of Binary District — the first thing you approach that you can read through, scan through and understand what this project is about. For me as a developer of this project, it was more like ‘Okay, here is our public face that should be understandable; that should have all our missions and all our ideas in’. If you, for example, look through how the journal is structured, you can see that we talk a lot about the brains behind the innovations, right? So we talk to researchers and developers and we keep in mind there are three types of audiences.The first one is the general public. That's why we have events and articles dedicated to the general public where we probably don't dive that deep but still keep the conversation quality, speak about trends, what the technology is about, what kind of advantages it might give to businesses.Secondly, we have another audience - decision-makers. These can be businesses, people from the government, policy makers for example.The third one is talent seekers. It's a well-known and understood reality that there isn’t enough talent yet in tech - especially in new technologies - and the industry is booming. For example, if you look at the numbers, the market for new technologies is still growing and developing - while more traditional technologies, they're not stagnating but they're kind of staying on the same level in terms of investment and development. We wanted to look into the future and that's why we selected cities which are very future-oriented with vibrant tech communities for our campuses. We first came to Amsterdam, then to Berlin and London. Recently, we opened an office in New York. The next step for us would be to go to Singapore, explore our local community there and create more partnerships there. So I guess that's the basic idea.
So you broke down your audience into three categories: general public, decision-makers, and talent. It sounds like it would be quite challenging editorially to cover and properly serve those three parts of the audience. So how do you approach coming up with content that will resonate across these three groups and is it a challenge?
I would say it was a challenge from the beginning. For a couple of years we've been just testing the feedback to those articles, looking at the metrics. Also, we were trying to see how we could benefit our events as well. What kind of events could we create as well that would fit well with the audience? After analyzing all the data that we accumulated in the last two years, it became clear that the easiest way would be to divide the audience into three groups. Also in terms of the educational events, the next step for us would be developing educational courses, for example bootcamps, workshops or long term courses - and the role of the journal would be directing the audience to become attendees.In terms of the content, it turned out to be not that difficult. To create articles for the general public, so-called explorers or decision-makers and talent seekers means that you need to talk to particular experts, right? So someone more popular and more hyped for the explorers to get them interested, someone more from the techy side for talent. For decision-makers coming from their personal business tasks, they need to understand what this technology can give them in terms of contributing to their product or services that they're developing or improving certain business processes. Each article is trying to appeal to a particular motivation of one of the three groups.The website presentation is a bigger challenge. You may have noticed that our website looks more like a blog. We've been building a prototype for the next stage that will be more interactive, with more features to make life easier for our readers. We’ll make it more obvious for different types of reader what content is for them and what speaks to their particular motivation. In terms of content, it's much easier to divide the people into categories and designing some sort of logic like funnels or particular paths for different audiences. That's what we have to work on with our developers.
What do you think are the most important factors with this audience in engaging them and growing their loyalty over time?
Well, we have a bit of an interesting case as we're not only providing written content. We also have an opportunity to meet those people through our events and our educational initiatives. That's why if you speak about loyalty I would say there are two stages. First, they must find our articles useful. They should want to come back to our website and read certain things again, share them, or subscribe to our newsletter. If you follow us on social media — that's the first stage.The second stage is whether they are that interested, that trusting that they would like to come to our events. After that the final stage would be educational products that we've been creating for them and about to launch. So I would say it's the loyalty that's tested with particular actions, whether you sign up and come to the events on particular occasions. For the most loyal readers — if they started as readers — would like to commit to particular educational parts within Binary District?I've been also thinking that it makes sense for us to create some kind of membership subscription framework for the audiences. We can experiment and test some things, but you're completely right that engagement and loyalty are very important for us.
How do most of these readers find you in the first place? Are you very SEO-driven or where do they come to you in the first place?
We are not only about a journal, right. Quite a lot of people find us through our partners, through our events, through our public activities. For example, we've been working closely with The Next Web in Amsterdam and I'm moderating quite a lot of panels at the events.We've also been active within universities. We cooperate with a number of researchers and would like to encourage them to also contribute to the journal. That's one of the rubrics that we have and we've been trying to encourage developers and researchers to write their own articles based on their research and some of the ideas that they've been thinking about.I have one foot in the academic world, so I can see how closed off it is. Sometimes when you want you suggest some ideas or you want to bring a bit of real-world into the academia that's challenging. That's why we wanted to offer researchers a platform where they could express their ideas to the audience that they can in the future benefit from. For example, if they want to take their research to the market and try to build a business out of it or sell it to some company, they need to be visible. They need to talk about their ideas. They need to talk about their findings and other things related to their activities, not only traditional academic conferences and traditional academic journals. In a way, we want to be something in-between the academic world and regular more mainstream world. That's challenging but I guess if we keep our quality it's easier to take some steps into scaling it, again, in terms of SEO and social media promotion.In terms of our public visibility, I'll try something which is pretty common nowadays - syndication. Our content is good quality, which means even mainstream media would like to have it. They might not otherwise have enough resources, especially as this is such a niche topic covering new technologies and R&D. So that's why it's been pretty easy for us, for example, to join the syndication program over TNW. Also, partnering with them makes things easier for us in terms of brand awareness and extra visibility. We do get some of their traffic to our website, not idea but still it works well.The next page would be to have more syndication. We've been testing the waters with some other mainstream publications and hopefully, soon we can launch there as well.
What do you find most exciting about your work?
As I come partly from the academic world, the most exciting thing for me is to encourage researchers to come out of their comfort zone — something familiar, slow and more traditional — into something a bit more challenging. Getting them like talking to people - businesses, the general public - trying to explain their ideas, their research and findings because that's important. There are so many good quality things that just stay unnoticed from the academic world.I enjoy going to academic conferences and just spending time with smart people that are not trying to sell you anything. That's a contrast compared to tech events or conferences like Web Summit or even Slush in Finland to speak about local markets. Over there everyone wants to pitch you on something. Everyone wants to sell you something which is understandable. That's one of the purposes of those events. But at the same time what's lacking is the content of those talks and conversations; sometimes probably also the environment. What I've been missing in the last couple of years from those events, the motivation — why actually try new things in the technologies? For researchers and developers often the motivation is to solve for a particular problem which they find interesting. For business people, it's more ‘okay, is this something that's going to bring me investments? Is this something that's going to bring me consumers?’. So it’s exciting to combine those things.When the researchers find something challenging in the technology and they can solve these problems, then it can result in an exciting product that's going to attract lots of investment. So, for me, it’s exciting to see those things happening and to see the combination of smart ideas with smart business, meeting a smart audience.
On your publication, there's a lot of fascinating articles about AI and new technologies. As somebody who's in this world but who's also in the world of journalism, I just wanted to ask you, how do you see new technology impacting or disrupting the world of journalism and news in the near to mid future?
In terms of tools, there are quite a lot of things happening already, somewhere in the background on the outskirts of journalism that we don't quite follow if we are not deep in the profession or deep in the academic world. For example, you might have heard of data journalism. Another thing that boosted it recently was the whole movement with fake news and false truths and so forth.The question is whether we can give the technology particular functions of journalists, can they just select particular facts and write very basic stories just out of those facts? It works pretty well with sports journalism as we just collect the outcomes of the matches and competitions and write-up the story which is factual.The challenge here is journalism has always been a lot about narratives, about stories, about humans, a lot about the objective. Judgements and assumptions often interest the audience, who usually comes to media to understand what's happening. Whether they're interested just in a colourless combination of facts or more in stories and more probably personal judgements, but at the same time, they're human. That's really another thing. That's something to be tested. If we speak about other technological improvements, AI and Big Data tools, they help a lot to understand the audience. That's something that I would call "know your audience" tools. The metrics help a lot to see the behaviour of the audience which in a way helps a lot to improve the websites/content. I would say new technologies help media publications to get closer to the audience, to understand it, and to create better products for them.Probably what's missing so far is the input from journalism as such. My research is connected with Civil War reporting, and there have been a lot of interesting things happening in different parts of the world. Different types of media tried to cover the events there, give some kind of analysis to those events, and there have been lots of mistakes - partially caused by new technologies and social media. Some of the information was faked. Some of the news was in a way distorted.That was why BBC, for example, came up with a new approach. They said, "Okay, we've made a lot of mistakes especially with the case of the Civil War and we're going to move away from fast news and just using anything that comes our way like social media videos or stories shared on Twitter and so forth, and we'll go to slowly. So we'll take things slow. We'll dig information. We'll try to talk to different experts. We'll try to show different sides to that and. We'll just take our time to analyze everything and weigh every word that we say".For me, that's where drilling steps in slows the technological process down. Yes it's important but we still need to keep the quality. While our technologies help us a lot with quantity and in terms of our readership and traffic - we still need to think about ethics and literacy, educating the audience and providing them the best information. Certain stories are developing over time and we need to show to the audience that. For me, slow news is something that is going to balance the rapid development of media boosted by new technologies.
I think that the trend toward slow news that you spoke about will be a very welcome development for a lot of people. I think a lot of people have a craving for some depth and rigour that may have dwindled a little in recent years but that seems to be making a comeback. If you had to give some advice from what you've learned from your work and your career so far in the journalism industry to other publishers who are starting out on that journey or who have an idea for a news product or a website - what would it be?
I would first of all try to encourage them to focus on the quality. Many would love to first be on a hype wave. They would love to get a lot of followers, a big audience, a lot of traffic, investments from advertisers. I would encourage them to always think about quality first.The second thing that they need to think about is the audience. Who are they making these products for? From there, they can create the right formats, they can choose the right topics to cover, and they will also understand better what they're trying to achieve with the whole thing.The third thing that I would also encourage and advise them to do is be honest. I understand that sometimes you need to show things in a certain light, in a more appealing manner. But at the same time, journalism loses its value if it's not honest or has some hidden agenda. If you represent a particular brand or corporation or a number of partners, just say that and provide the best quality you can in this particular context - but be honest. Otherwise, for me, that's not journalism. That's more PR, and if you're doing PR just say that. If you are doing journalism, and you say that you're doing journalism, then there's no other way. You can't do part-time PR.In terms of surviving in the digital age, I would say learn digital tools. Read a lot. Network a lot with digital marketing professionals. Find the right ones to work with that understand your products, understand your audience, and come up with interesting solutions. Digital marketing tools and different tricks and trends are dying out very fast. That's why you some kind of professional pillar that can support your journalistic path and support your communication with the audience. That's definitely a must in the digital age.Think about using new tools that help you to understand your audience, track behaviour and intelligently improve their experience with your creation.In terms of topics I would recommend testing the waters with new technologies because there are so many exciting things coming. Probably you've noticed that there are not so many publications that provide valuable information apart from testing gadgets and rewriting press releases for Apple and Google and others. It's time to be more active in this space and to educate and grow the audience. In the long term, I think it's going to be a great starting point for your careers and a good investment of your time. Later on it could bring some good rewards — financial rewards.
Thank you so much for that advice. Where can our listeners go if they want to learn more about you, your work, and your organization?
I would recommend visiting our website binarydistrict.com. There you can also find our journal at journal.binarydistrict.com. We're on social media - Facebook, Telegram and LinkedInIf you'd like to follow me just send me a request on LinkedIn or join me on Twitter. Hopefully, you will get some kind of inspiration and something useful for your professional careers!
Thank you so much for joining us. I've really enjoyed the conversation.