Tronc Inc., the company formerly known as Tribune Publishing, has pledged to bring its 11 major daily newspapers into the 21st century by combining machine learning and artificial intelligence with the values of old-school journalism.

So far, the media community has been less than impressed with the rebranded company's public relations campaign, which included a video starring Chief Digital Officer Anne Vasquez and Malcolm CasSelle, Tronc's chief technology officer and president of new ventures.

But in a recent interview with Poynter's Rick Edmonds and Benjamin Mullin, Vasquez and CasSelle expressed enthusiasm for the company's strategy, which will see Tronc pool resources from its portfolio of newspapers, ramp up video production and use audience data to make sure its stories are discovered by people who actually want to see them.

The pair also shared their thoughts on the company's attitude toward paywalls, a rough timeline for launching products and explained what the changes might mean for the company's sizable corps of journalists. Below is a transcript of that conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Edmonds:

We've both looked at Tronc.com. Right now, it seems like a collection of stories, mostly from the L.A. Times and the Chicago Tribune. It's well laid-out, with good headlines, but there's not much video that I see. Can you do the, "now and when it's finished" contrast? What will a more complete version of that site look like?

CasSelle:

The intention is to highlight great content there. As you know, we send people to the place where the actual article is published. So, when you click on an L.A. Times article, you'll see a summary on Tronc. But you click through to see the whole article on the L.A. Times, for example.

That's how most traffic comes these days. People don't go through the homepage. They come in through social, they come in through search. They come in through direct links. So the intent is to continue to drive traffic to the underlying properties.

We also have a content syndication company called TCA with over 400 sources and 1,600 customers. So the idea is, all of those sources will ultimately be there. We also want to highlight, of course, as much video as possible. So you'll see a lot of video showing up.

What you see there live is just the beta. You'll see a lot more sources, you'll see a lot more video. And you'll see, also, the algorithmic recommendations for video and understanding your news preferences.

Edmonds:

Here's another really basic question that relates to artificial intelligence. Does this anticipate that artificial intelligence can write stories as we see with some of AP's earnings reports or games coverage? Or actually make videos? Or is it something different?

CasSelle:

We see machine intelligence or machine learning and artificial intelligence as augmenting the ability. Think of it as machine assist. So, for example, as you're writing a story, machines can help suggest visualizations.

They can search our own archives, as third-party sources, much more completely. Right now, all of that is a very manual process, and it interrupts the creative flow. So our idea is that it will enhance the process of storytelling because as you're telling the story, the machine's suggesting ways of helping you visualize it.

Edmonds:

Back when Jack Griffin was CEO, he said several different times on earnings calls, "we're playing catch-up on digital." I've seen some of this in Anne's piece and others, that Tribune didn't start at the head of the class in terms of a content management system. And I wonder if what's being planned now to some degree skips steps that would have been taken to match what's the current best out there? Or does it aim to go in a different direction and end up in a different place?

CasSelle:

There's definitely some low-hanging fruit and catching up to what I believe should be the status quo for not only Tronc, but publishers in general. And there's some advanced initiatives that I think slingshot past where I think most people are thinking about content monetization.

In terms of our content recommendation and personalization, we really have not done much in that department. For example, we would look at people's usage on the site, but we didn't do anything with that information.

So if you looked at 10 different articles on the site, when you came to look at the 11th, we didn't recommend the thing you're most likely to click on next based on your consumption history. And that's a pretty obvious thing. That's how Netflix makes its money, that's how Amazon makes its money, that's how Facebook keeps you on the News Feed. That's why Google's search results are so good. All because they observe your behavior and decide what to position next for you to click on and engage with.

Edmonds:

In listening to your NAA speech, did I understand correctly that, as these systems develop, you would also anticipate taking all of the third-party data collection off of these sites?

CasSelle:

We're not interested in folks collecting our data when we don't get anything in return. We've already removed folks who are collecting data who just shouldn't be there. There are folks who do collect data and we get something in exchange for that. To me, I just thought let's just have proper data hygiene where we look after our own data and treat it with the value that it actually has. We did kick off a lot of players who I deemed as not valuable to us.

Edmonds:

They pay a little something to be on the site, so it's not a significant stream of income, or do they not even do that?

CasSelle:

Some pay. Some trade information that's valuable. It just has to be value for value.

Edmonds:

What more can you say about the timetable for developing Tronc? I saw somewhere that you said that's something that's hard to be very specific about. But if not a full timetable, at least what the next steps in the next several months might be?

CasSelle:

We have a pretty rapid rollout schedule now with our development team. I think you'll see improvements pretty quickly. I think in a course of months, you'll see all the sources up and videos live. I think you'll see a pretty robust recommendation engine within maybe [the next quarter]. But by the end of the year, we're going to take it to a higher level in terms of how you can interact with it on mobile and new ways of visualizing all the content that's on there.

I would say, the basic things I'm talking about probably in this [upcoming quarter], and then we have a lot of other exciting things planned before the end of the year. We timed the beta with the NASDAQ listing, so people who wanted to see it could see it. But we won't have pushed it out to the public, as far as I'm concerned, until Q3 of July.

Mullin:

If you're a rank-and-file reporter or line editor at a Tronc property, how could you see your workday start to change in the next three to four months?

Vasquez:

You think first, foremost and pretty much only about the digital audience. Which means, when you're conceiving your story, when you're conceiving your ideas with your editors, you're being empathetic to that digital audience and trying to figure out how to best visualize that story. You're talking video all the time. At every news meeting, the question is asked, when you're pitching stories, how are we visualizing it? What's the video on that?

And that's not to say we're going to create all of those videos. At South Florida, the success we had wasn't just in putting smartphones in the hands of reporters or having photographers shoot more videos. It was making it a concerted effort that video was important, and then playing air-traffic control to determine what video do we have available to us, and how do we attach it quickly?

A lot of times, it could be something produced by someone else that we have available to us through a third party. We have a constant stream of video coming in all the time. So it's a matter of being smart about it and thinking about it throughout the day — not just at the end of the process, not just when it's convenient.

Mullin:

Will you guys implement any structural changes in the newsroom to reinforce those goals?

Vasquez:

We need to allow the markets to implement this. The philosophy behind this is that you need to separate content creation, the creation of journalism, from the print production. I think today, you have a lot of newsrooms — not just our newsrooms, but in the industry, who say they are digital. But really, they still have their feet in both worlds. They're still talking about 1A, they're still talking about jumping stories, you have your metro editors coming up with the lineup for the print edition.

...We need to separate our print production and make sure that you have a designated group of people who are taking ownership for what's still a very important product. Print still remains important. But it's a channel for what we do. We're not a publishing company that happens to do digital. We're now a digital company that happens to publish papers.

So one of the tools we're starting to roll out and having the first pilot for here in the L.A., is our upgraded CMS. We're working with The Washington Post, as I think everyone's heard. There's been an internal interface developed here that if we rolled that out to all the markets would make the creation of content much more visual and facilitate the creation of digital journalism.

The model that we've seen at the Los Angeles Times where they have a second desk for print and also at the Sun Sentinel, that will be a company-wide philosophy. I think even the New York Times came out with that in their 2020 plan.

As journalists, we have to acknowledge that as long as you have responsibility for both, print is going to suck up your time. ...That's going to liberate [our journalists] to make sure the content that we have and the journalism that we're creating is made for a digital audience.

And We have to make sure, and be clear, that as we're doing this, we're working with the editors and publishers. This is a collaboration. It's not us shoving something down their throat. We need everybody's buy-in. Because it's not going to work without everybody working together.

Edmonds:

Let's say there's a reporter covering business development in Allentown [Pennsylvania]. That's not going to be of interest to the world at large — unless it's a particularly tricky story — nor is it going to be terribly visual. Does that that kind of local coverage have less priority?

Vasquez:

Local coverage remains. What the markets do is all local. They own local politics, they own local business, they own local sports and arts and entertainment, food and dining and opinion and watchdog and investigative journalism. That doesn't change.

The choices are, how we devote our resources? That's not a new question. That's something we've had to do as journalists for many, many years. You always have to figure out: Where is your time best spent? And those questions will continue to be asked. The only difference is, we'll have more information.

CasSelle:

The articles that are occurring locally have audiences that are interested all around the world. The thing is, when you use recommendation engines, it's much more efficient to get those in front of people who wouldn't know about them otherwise. Both in-market and out of market. I think Netflix had this great article about how they realized geography was almost useless when it came to real content recommendations.

Take anime as an example. Eighty percent of the people who consume anime live outside Japan. Their conclusion was that nerds live everywhere. It's independent of race, income and geography. I think that's so true when it comes to the stories that we're working with. Both new stories and enterprise stories. They have audiences that are everywhere. And the best way to get them in front of people is by using AI and machine learning to channel it to people.

Edmonds:

I want to go back to something you touched on earlier, and that's the revenue strategy here. You said you anticipate revenue per user going up. Particularly on the more generic Tronc site, are we talking entirely about ad revenue and well-targeted ads? And more content than presently? Or is there an element of people paying for access to the site?

CasSelle:

We currently have a subscription strategy, a paywall strategy. I am an honest believer that there will never be more than a very small percentage of people who are willing to pay for content. We live in a world where there's a flood of free content. And there's just some people who refuse to pay no matter what. So I think our monetization really comes from understanding our audience and then putting that audience in front of the right brands and services at the right time.

So, we're really going to take advantage of where the advertising landscape has gone, and that's performance marketing. It's about cost-per-click and cost-per-action. That's where all the money is made on Google and Facebook. You only pay for people who click on your ad. It's just not something that publishers have ever done. So we'll continue to serve our really, really loyal audience that pays for assets and our digital subscribers.

...But I think the monetization is really moving toward a place where advertisers can participate in a cost-per-click environment.

Mullin:

Reading through [NPR media correspondent] David Folkenflik's tweets, he talked to a former TribPub or Tronc executive who said there was some kind of fracas over whether the Los Angeles Times proposed entertainment site only publishing positive news. Do you guys know what that's all about? Was that ever a discussion that was on the table?

CasSelle:

There has been a lot of editorial discussion about direction for things that are ongoing. It's sort of like looking at a cake while you're baking it. It doesn't make a lot of sense — there's cracked eggs everywhere, there's flour on the floor, there's probably the dog licking something up. What's going on? It doesn't make sense.

I think any editorial discussion about a property that isn't launched yet makes any sense to talk about. There's really nothing to talk about there because there will be 59 machinations back and forth about any property before it goes live.

Vasquez:

What I told David, and I think what David tweeted, too, was that...LA.com is a really great URL. When it's queued up, when we decide what we're going to do, I think it's going to be a great opportunity. SouthFlorida.com, which I think you're familiar with, just got named the best entertainment website for a paper of its size. And that's all arts, entertainment, dining, things to do, what to wear when you go out.

Mullin:

You guys just announced 2.5 percent raises across the company for your journalists. And that's something, reading the Folkenflik, tweets, that hasn't happened for a few years. Given the raise, given everything that's happened in the last six months for Tronc employees, how would you say morale is throughout your newsrooms?

Vasquez:

We've visited [eight markets now]. I'll say: I've been documenting it on my feed and posting selfies in the markets we're going to. I got a direct message on Twitter from someone in San Diego saying, "Hi Anne, thanks for visiting us in San Diego. I thought the presentation was inspiring." That's the kind of feedback I've been getting.

This is a week where people got to see what the strategy is, what the road map is, and have a chance to speak with us and ask questions. And we've been very candid with them. I feel like this is very much the beginning.