March 25, 2016

Without fanfare, the National Association of Broadcasters has rebranded and expanded a small in-house technology development program. Also, kicking the disrupt-yourself stakes up a notch, it has taken direct early-stage investment positions in three companies over the last year.

It was news to me that the industry group has had an active involvement in tech experiments for years — a contrast to the newspaper industry, which typically showcases tech vendors at its conferences and stops there.

The investment arm, which had been NAB Labs, was renamed PILOT early this year. John Clark, completing the spring term as a faculty member in the Reese Labs at the University of North Carolina School of Media and Communications, has been hired as its executive director.

Meanwhile the technology division has invested in Haystack TV, one of several recent startups offering a personalized video news stream assembled from a variety of sources. (I wrote about one competitor, Watchup, earlier this year).

The flurry of activity in custom streaming suggests that taking apart, reassembling and curating the component parts of TV newscasts is beginning to look like a potentially viable product.

And perhaps more important, in an industry as entrenched in rigid news formats as print newspapers ever were, companies can see the case for letting startup ventures do the disrupting rather than trying to develop such products on their own.

Sam Matheny, NAB’s chief technology officer, told me in a phone interview that the other two investments have been in Antenna, a content engagement company that harvests information on how users interact with mobile and Web content, and Yet Analytics, which specializes in multi-source data collection.

Antenna quickly signed 55 participating sites after a full launch last August, with a simple popup that asks readers what they think of a story they are reading — with preset responses or a comment option.

PILOT’s objective, Matheny said, is to “see further into the future sooner.”

He was careful to emphasize that the investments in question are very modest in scale. “These are all seed early-stage startups. There’s a high-degree of a chance of failure, and, if we don’t have some of those, we are probably not doing it right.”

Matheny declined to get specific about amounts. But, he added, “these are rounds that typically total less than $1 million…we have a profile (for joining that kind of venture funding) and follow what we consider smart money.”

Besides the money, participating companies benefit from access to industry advice and a potential entree to NAB members as customers.

In addition to the investments, PILOT has established membership relations with four incubators. And part of the expansion was adding sponsoring dues-paying members, initially including Google, Nielsen, Akamai, Accenture and Yahoo.

Matheny and Clark worked together earlier in their careers at Capitol Broadcasting’s WRAL-TV in Raleigh, considered a pioneer among local stations in the digital space.

Plenty about PILOT remains to be fleshed out — its website for now is a coming-attraction notice for spring 2016.

The direct investment approach to tech caught my eye a year ago when I learned that the non-profit Knight Foundation was taking venture stakes in for-profit startups.

The venture fund, directed Ben Wirz, is part of managing Knight’s endowment. However, the real agenda includes building deeper knowledge of next wave tech trends to inform Knight’s large-scale grant making in that area.

Among legacy print companies, Hearst has long maintained a venture division taking early stage investment stakes in startups, including one in Netscape in 1995.

More recently McClatchy has done some of the same, inviting other companies to join in backing such ventures as Matter, a San Francisco media incubator, and Moonlighting, a matching service for freelancers and publishers.

Tech vendors are a staple of industry conferences, in high season now, as sponsors and presenters. Both the International News Media Association (INMA) and the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) have sessions at their annual meetings devoted to brief pitches from newish companies with intriguing product ideas.

That’s all to the good, but I think Knight and NAB are onto something with the practice of getting at least a little skin in the game, thus gaining a participant’s perspective on trying to figure out what will be big next in media technology.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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