Can automated newscasts disrupt traditional news broadcasting?


A trailer for the latest version of News At Seven. With intricies such as mimicking the interplay between real news presenters, News At Seven perhaps competes too directly against traditional news media.

The McComick engineering school at Northwestern has produced an automated newscast called News At Seven. The show features computer-animated news readers presenting the news against images and videos about each news item. Each three minute program is auto-generated by scouring sources across the internet. Will this innovation take off and reach the masses? The theories of Clayton Christensen and others on disruptive technologies would suggest that is it entirely possible. However, as is the case with many disruptive technologies that succeed, News At Seven will need to take an unlikely path to get there. Otherwise it risks going the way of previous animated news reader attempts, such as Ananova.

Start with non-consumers.

When the telephone first arrived in a world where the telegraph was king, or TVs first started attracting crowds away from cinemas, both these innovations did not attempt or even think it likely that they would change the status quo. The quality of both the telephone and TV was poor and they did not seem like they were a threat to the incumbent telegraph and cinema technologies. The telephone could only be used for short distances - from one building to the next. The television was considered to be visualised radio, with commentators seen reading what they would read on the radio. In the early years, both technologies attracted users that could not afford or did not seek the high quality of the mainstream technologies of the time. The telephone was useful for communicating between buildings, saving people from walking. The television was seen as a cheap form of entertainment. Later, the telephone's quality improved to handle long ranges - becoming a viable competitor to the telegraph. The quality of television programs also improved to start matching cinema quality productions. In this same vein, News At Seven should not attempt to mimic or automate news that is currently available to a high standard through current newscasting.

The people who watch news programs already have something that does this job particularly well for them, traditional news media. Attempting to compete against traditional news media on this trajectory will be an arms race that the News At Seven team will not have the resources for. News reading has gone from an anchor presenting the news against images, to including videos and visualisations. The future suggests anchors will even interact with what were previously background graphics. Rather than chase to match traditional news media, the News At Seven team should consider providing a news-like service to non-consumers. In the same way that the telephone initially provided something different to the telegraph, and the TV was cheaper, but entertaining, comparative to cinema, News At Seven could seek non-consumers of traditional news media. Examples could include
  • Highly personalised news for the younger generations. The users could give the News At Seven all the RSS, Twitter and other feeds that they regularly read. News At Seven could use this to produce a 3 minute video of everyone and everything the users are interested in. The younger generations, children and teenagersm are not interested in regular news programs, but enjoy and are comfortable with new media such as Facebook. They are also likely to tolerate cartoon news readers and be forgiving of the poorer quality of the news reading comparative to the real news readers of traditional media. These users may quickly take to the News At Seven style newscast, updating them on their friends and interests.
  • Video aggregation. As the amount of text content on the internet increased, RSS came alive. Sites that produced a lot of content, such as blogs and news websites, could provide a standard feed with all their updates. RSS readers enabled people to keep up with the latest updates from several sites. A similar problem is starting to occur with video. As more and more video becomes available on the internet, how will you be able to keep up with the updates? Just seeing the titles and screenshots of the videos in a search result or aggregated page is unlikely be a sufficient mechanism for keeping up to date. However, if you know you are interested in documentaries on Hulu, funny videos on YouTube and news from BBC News, perhaps News At Seven can take these sources and provide a 3 minute highlights clip - with the cartoon news anchors providing commentary from blog postings. The 3 minute highlight could be a jump-off point to watching the full length items you are interested in. 
As personalised news for the younger generation or a video aggregation service, News At Seven would target markets where there is no competition. Building a successful service is areas such as these will motivate News At Seven to improve it's offering, as its revenues and resources increase. In the same way that the telephone eventually improved to compete and overtake the telegraph, and the TV so successfully competes with cinema now, News At Seven could then expand its quality across its service to compete more effectively with traditional news media.

Be wary of the Medill

When MP3s first appeared, record labels relying on CD sales shrugged their shoulders and dismissed the entrant technology. Record labels did not have the expertise and resources to understand let alone compete with something as alien to them as a non-physical items, MP3s. Secondly, the processes of the music industry were matured over decades and specific to selling music on the high streets as efficiently as possible; these processes could not possibly adapt to the online world where goods could be transmitted in microseconds. Thirdly, the music industry were intent on making as much money as possible through physical sales: with MP3s initially only in small numbers, the value systems of the retail stores dictated investing in existing production of physical CDs rather than investing in technology that allowed copies to roam freely - it just made more financial sense to do so. Consequently, the Resources, Processes and Values (RPVs) - everything that constituted a record label - worked against the record labels dealing with the threat of MP3s. Time and time again, the RPVs of incumbents leaves them confounded and unable to tackle disruptive technology threats.

The Medill school of journalism is a powerhouse at the door step of the News At Seven team. However, Medill is an engine for current traditional media technologies. It produces journalists seeking job titles and with skills specific to traditional news media. Medill works to support the RPVs of traditional news media. Paying too much heed to the advise and requirements from Medill could leave News At Seven as just a poor version of existing traditional news media output. It is to the benefit of News At Seven that is housed in the McComick engineering school, where the RPVs are entirely different to Medill. At McComick, the resources exist to understand the technology behind News At Seven. In the separate hub of McComick, News At Seven is also free to independently create the new processes required to support automated news. The values at McComick, which push the boundaries of technology, will also support News At Seven's mission. If News At Seven takes a disruptive path and is successful, it will upset the process and roles that are common now in traditional news media. A world with automated news would require people with different skills to support such a system, and the use of entirely different processes to support automated news. This in turn would challenge Medill to support this emerging industry, in the same way the music industry was challenged to support MP3s. However, in taking a disruptive path, News At Seven can still garner value from it's relationship with Medill. Through Medill, it can seek to understand the value chain for traditional news production.

Understand the value chain.

Mature industries are ripe for disruption. In such industries, there are well defined processes and documented standards. An example is brick-and-mortar stores. There are well understood mechanics for producing goods such as books, distributing them to stores through trucks and selling them through retail outlets. The different parts of this chain, which Christensen et al refer to as 'modules', have well defined interfaces. This means that each part in the chain could be substituted for any number of other similar parts. The retail outlet could be Waterstones, Borders or even an independent retail outlet. The trucks could be operated by any number of distributors. The books could be produced by any number of publishers.


The Internet, and online stores such as Amazon, have disrupted this value chain by integrating two of the modules, the distribution and retail. This integration adds a new interface, to the postal service, to ultimately deliver the goods. This integration and re-carving of the value chain is what enabled Amazon to produce a different, disruptive proposition to retail outlets.


Comparative to the brick-and-mortar value chain, the online Amazon value chain reduced the quality of some aspects of what was offered to consumers: they are not able to touch and feel the book they are buying; they are also not able to take possession of the book immediately (waiting instead for postal delivery). However, the online value chain increased the quality of other aspects of the service: a larger catalogue of books is available than in any one retail store; you no longer needed to be in a retail store to purchase a book. People seeking to do the job of 'gaining specific knowledge' could now do so much more easily than through the previous effort of seeking specialist book stores.

Concentrating on the job to be done is paramount. Reporting the same news as traditional news would be the job to be done of greatest competition and difficulty for News At Seven. Alternative jobs, such as personalised news for younger generations or aggregating video highlights, are jobs that could take a more disruptive path. In taking any such path, understanding the existing value chain will allow News At Seven to tinker and determine the parts it needs to integrate across to produce the service that best serves the job to be done.

A simplified value chain for news production may be something like this: News reports arrive through feeds, such as the Associated Press, or a station's own correspondent. A producer takes this, and other reporting, to create a news piece for broadcasting. The anchor on the news program reads the news and presents the producer's output. This is broadcast to viewers on television and those watching the same news on the Internet.


News At Seven's automated news cast changes the value chain by integrating the role of the producer and news anchor.


The areas where the quality of the service is reduced is clear: the quality of the presentation does not compare to that of traditional news media; credibility and fact-checking are likely to be poor also. In which parts of the service does the quality increases? This could be personalisation or non-news aggregation. However, is News At Seven integrating the right modules to serve the job to be done? If News At Seven did not use feeds and reports from other providers, what would the service be like? Would journalists be able to report on and create more news items because the actual presentation would be automated and require little effort? Alternatively, what if News At Seven integrated across the distribution mechanism instead? Rather than be broadcast from one of the many websites on the internet, perhaps it could be one of the more limited number of free iPhone apps? Perhaps websites such as Nike's might appreciate athletic news related to the stars Nike sponsors. Understanding how News At Seven fits into the value chain, and how it will re-carve it, will enable the service to better serve the job to be done.

Can News At Seven triumph?

The theories of disruption suggest that it is certainly possible for News At Seven to succeed, but only if News At Seven follows a disruptive path:
  • Competing against traditional news media in providing traditional news is an arms race that News At Seven is not resourced to win. News At Seven needs to seek out non-consumers and work with the strengths of it service in the areas where its quality is already greater than traditional news media. For these non-consumers, News At Seven needs to serve jobs that are not currently adequately performed for them.
  • Housed in McComick, News At Seven is ideally placed with the RPVs to grow the technology effectively. Medill is a powerhouse of RPVs unsuited to exploit News At Seven. News At Seven may need to redefine processes and roles that Medill is familiar with.
  • Understanding the value chain that News At Seven is affecting will allow the News At Seven to understand if it is integrating and re-carving the chain across the right modules. Are the modules that News At Seven is re-carving the most effective for enabling it to serve its job to be done?