The Conference That Made Me Want to Quit My Job and Become a Mom

I pulled up to the giant, geometric-shaped ice cream cone that is the William Vale Hotel in Williamsburg at 8:19 a.m. last Thursday. As one who has an obsession with modern, Bauhaus-inspired architecture, I was impressed.

I was even more impressed by the $15 price tag that was advertised on the parking kiosk, especially since I didn’t have any choice but to valet because I was already 19 minutes late to the first panel of the Digital Publishing conference I was sent to cover.

I walked to the front desk with a pace that suggested I was being chased by a feral dog. The poise and friendliness of the three employees that stood there to greet me made me feel like the neurotic girl that I was. I followed their lead through the mid-century-styled lobby, down the marble stairs and up to the desk where I picked up my press pass from a gentleman who had a British accent that made me swoon and wish I had worn something more beautifying than a pair of jeans and an over-sized turtle neck sweater.

I calmed my ego by telling myself that I was the press and wasn’t there for schmoozing purposes.

Through the double-black doors across from the press desk was the angled conference room, which was half-filled with well-dressed business people who began clapping when I walked in.

The first speaker had just concluded his presentation.

Considering the quality of male presenters to follow, I am quite certain I didn’t miss much.

My experience at the Digital Publishing Innovation Summit, where industry leading companies such as Condé Nast, CNN, PBS, Bitly, and Vanity Fair discussed common challenges and media-related strategies, began with Maia McCann, Editor-in-Chief of Little Things, a website dedicated to women’s lifestyle.

McCann is the mother of two pugs, an anecdote that she announced at the beginning of her talk, which I found both sweet and appropriate considering the proliferation of content that she creates, organizes, and shares with the 50 million plus visitors she reaches each month.

She spoke about the success of her site’s video series Refresh, which airs every day at 10 a.m.. The show features Cassie and Paul Morris, a wholesome married couple that comment, via live streaming, on the day’s “positive and feel good” viral videos.

If I had any confidence in my criticisms of wedding culture and the commercialization of love, this series destroyed them with a sledgehammer. The segment in which the father of the bride sang his own rendition of Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” for example, had me blubbering like an embarrassed whale.

Refresh is successful in ways that go far beyond exposing my own fear of love; as a business model, it is brilliant.

McCann found a way to use already-popular videos and re-contextualize them in a way that makes them original to her brand, which eases any concerns regarding copyright infringement.

Lisa Schneider, Chief Digital Officer of Merriam-Webster Dictionary, also spoke about her company’s success in generating a feed based off of viral and trending content.

Trend watch, a campaign launched by Merriam-Webster that includes the publishing of articles and tweets based on the most looked up words of the week, has increased user engagement by the tens of thousands, said Schneider.

In January, for example, Merriam-Webster tweeted the definition of “fact” just hours after Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway appeared on “Meet The Press” and referred to statements by White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer about the inaugural crowd size as “alternative facts.”

“A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality,” tweeted Merriam-Webster.

Engagement? 49,569.

Apparently it works—to use existing, popular content as a means of revenue.

But what about original content?

Before I dig into this topic, it is important to define what the word “original” means. According to Merriam-Webster, it means “the source or cause from which something arises; specifically; originator.”

In my mind, this is honorable–to have an industry giant produce and share content that was created by the corporation themselves.

But what is a corporation? We assume a corporation is a group of individuals. It is a group of merchants or traders, according to Merriam-Webster, but humans nonetheless.

How, though, do you digest this moral question if the producers are machines, not people?

For me, as easily as a glass of sour milk.

Jessica Rogelio, CEO of Arkadium, has a different opinion.

At the start of her presentation, I agreed with her whole-heartedly. She stated with convincing, calculated information that newsrooms needed to innovate to a changing environment.

According to Rogelio, the average reading time for an article is 3.8 minutes, which is down from 17 minutes. The bounce rate, she added, pointing to a infographic with her mouse, is at an average of 55 percent, meaning 80 percent of people do not read full articles.

“The industry is aware of this,” she said. “And they are looking for ways to change with this changing atmosphere.”

The answer is in the visuals.

Articles with visualizations are up 20 percent, she said.

Financial Times saw 60 times more viewership because of visual aids, as opposed to only text-based articles.

The Associated Press saw 40 percent.

I agreed, even as she segued into the thesis of her presentation, which highlighted the problem that image-based information—via the form of video and graphics—are time and resource consuming.

As a video artist I agreed with the enthusiasm of a bobble-head. Yes! I said to myself. Yes, it is! So what do we do about it?

Artificial intelligence, apparently.

Rogelio founded Arkadium, a platform that uses AI and big data to create interactive graphic visualizations.

“It enhances a story through data and interaction,” she said.

She mentioned other names too, such as Heliograf, which has been in the news due to its use by the Washington Post in their coverage of the Olympics and the elections:

The Washington Post will use robots to write stories about the Rio Olympics 

Extra! Extra! Read All A-bot It? 

What does this mean for the future of not just journalism? According to the Washington Post, it won’t change it much, considering bots cover small, often over-looked stories.

Like the election?

Shailesh Prakash, CIO and VP of digital product development at the Post, ensured Wired that the system is not there to usher reporters into obsolescence.

Yet their goal, she said, was to grow. “And we can’t have that many humans. We’d go bankrupt.”

As I looked around at the room to see if anyone was gesturing the same discomfort as me, I noticed the pregnant woman at the table in front of me—with a plate of three muffins and even more crumbs in front of her; her hands were resting gently on her stomach.

I thought of the invisible person that was growing inside her and couldn’t help but make the connection between it and my industry’s desire to obfuscate human labor.

I stuck around for a few more talks, which proved to be nothing new, just as the industry desires. When I left at lunch, I walked to an ATM and immediately felt guilty for not going to a real teller.

Upon returning, I handed the valet a $5 bill and thanked him with a sincerity I hope he understood.

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