Part of a very small tribe: CNN’s news futurist

By Steve Outing

Where have all the full-time news futurists gone? … Oh, yeah, there have been so few in the news industry, it’s no wonder that most news companies have trouble grappling with the future.

The New York Times hired author and futurist Michael Rogers as “futurist in residence” from 2006 to 2008. Rogers previously worked at the Washington Post for a decade as vice president of editorial research and development. That two-year stint must have had some influence, since few would argue that the NY Times Co. is not at the top of the heap today when it comes to putting resources and major effort into innovation at the intersection of news and technology.

Victor Hernandez

News futurist Victor Hernandez, CNN

Someone can (please!) correct me if I’ve overlooked anyone else currently working as a full-time futurist for a news organization, but the only other individual I’ve been able to find is Victor Hernandez, a decade-long employee of CNN Worldwide who for the last two years has been the cable/digital news network’s full-time news futurist.

(Let’s be clear: There are many people at news organizations who serve in the role of “news futurist,” but it’s only one part of their jobs. A CEO or a VP of business development or technology who has some talent in and spends some time on longer-term strategic foresight — i.e., futurism — is not going to be as effective as a full-time futurist on staff.)

As I’ve argued in previous posts here on Media Disruptus, the news industry is ill equipped to deal with the quickly accelerating pace of technological and societal change that’s coming soon. Most media professionals recognize that the last decade-plus has seen profound and fast technological change which has disrupted most (and killed some) news organizations. But as technology advancements march on in exponential fashion (see Ray Kurzweil), the pace of change that we’ve come to know in recent times is turtle-like compared to the coming era of major, quickly arriving advancements in computing power, artificial intelligence, robotics, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), driverless cars, wearable technology, and more.

So, bravo to CNN Worldwide’s executives for recognizing a smart proposal when they saw one: to shift Hernandez’s role to that of full-time news futurist for the organization, working as the primary point of intersection or “linchpin” between the news and technology sides of CNN.

Why does CNN need a news futurist?

Hernandez is one of those journalists with a passion for technology and innovation. His background is on the editorial side, and he worked in local TV news in Southern California until moving to CNN about a decade ago in a news-gathering management role. Several years prior to becoming a CNN news futurist, he put much of his time and effort into innovation and using public engagement and social media as reporting enablers for willing CNN journalists, as well as increasing (or initiating) collaboration across CNN’s various newsrooms.

As CNN’s news futurist, Hernandez is the full-time ‘linchpin’ between the network’s journalists and technologists

A couple years ago, Hernandez pitched a new role for himself to CNN executives on both the news and technology sides of the media company. The idea, he says, was to create a new position that would be the full-time “linchpin” between the network’s journalists and its technologists. Rather than editorial and technology coming together on short-term projects, as had been the norm, his position would announce a serious commitment to the editorial and technology departments working together regularly, and learning each others’ languages, problems, and needs — and looking forward together.

Hernandez sees his role as increasingly important to his employer, since as the years fly by, it’s more and more critical that the disciplines of journalism, technology, and business strategy mesh in a way that will inform all parties of emerging and future developments that must be understood by everyone, if CNN is to succeed in a rapidly changing media world.

Hernandez says that his (and CNN’s) biggest challenges are in discovering new business models and revenue streams, and new ways of storytelling to capture the minds of tomorrow’s audiences — on TV, online, mobile, and perhaps more down the road.

Here’s a brief audio clip of Hernandez explaining how roles like his, and futurism as a priority for any media company, are “not just an option”:

Because CNN is, at heart, a news organization and not a technology entity, there is a need for someone to navigate within the vortex of technology and news coverage — preferably a journalist who understands and practices technology innovation, and understands how to bridge the culture and language gaps between journalist and technologist. Because Hernandez has been a fixture at CNN as a journalist for a decade and has spent time working the technology side, he says, “I have this built-in credibility, which is really nice” when approaching CNN journalists (not all of whom are eager for change) about trying new reporting techniques or incorporating an experimental piece of technology into the reporting process.

His approach is to introduce open-minded CNN journalists to new tools from outside, and/or tools built within CNN’s technology department, and serve as the person who helps integrate new tools and techniques into the editorial flow in a way that a pure technologist might not succeed at without fully understanding journalistic practice and editorial culture.

In this short audio clip, Hernandez discusses the challenges of incorporating new reporting tools and long-term decision-making into an established newsroom that’s already working at breakneck speed just to produce the news:

I noticed in interviewing Hernandez that he doesn’t speak as though he is looking as far into the future as other futurists who I’ve interviewed. Perhaps because of the demands of “feeding the beast” with continual news, he doesn’t appear to have the same latitude as some other futurists who consistently look out a decade or more, watching emerging trends and crafting scenarios of how things might turn out.

Because CNN has a robust technology operation, and technologists building hardware and software themselves, Hernandez finds it well worth his time attending start-up presentations and going to media and technology conferences and trade shows. He also keeps up relationships with big tech players like Google, Twitter, Apple, and others, in order to learn what they’re doing and try to understand where they’re headed; i.e., what are the next big things that others are working on. That’s useful in steering CNN technologists away from internal projects that might duplicate what a big player already is doing, and revealing future technologies that will be useful for future CNN use. Of course, Hernandez has no special power beyond the rest of us to get the likes of Google to reveal what they don’t yet want to be known. But the CNN brand attached to his name sometimes gets companies to talk with Hernandez about future initiatives.

While Agent 007 had to visit ‘Q’ at the home office to pick up his lethal gadgets, CNN’s Gadget Lab will ship out to a far-flung correspondent or producer whatever is needed for covering a story or trying an experimental reporting technique

One enviable and relatively new part of CNN that falls under Hernandez’s purview is the “CNN Gadget Lab” (unofficial name), where he and other staffers evaluate, collect, and purchase new products and arrange to use experimental equipment that can make CNN journalists’ lives easier, and CNN’s news product better. This includes such equipment as camera and video drones; mobile reporting kits and portable live-streaming units; new kinds of cameras, including low-cost gear that may someday replace CNN’s older, expensive field cameras without sacrificing quality; etc.

I’m imagining CNN’s Gadget Lab (not having seen it in person) as akin to the weapons-gadgetry lab in the James Bond movies, with Hernandez as Q (head of the fictional research and development division of the British Secret Service) — but not nearly as sexy and lethal.

And while Agent 007 had to visit the home office to pick up his fake fingerprints and exploding alarm clock, CNN’s Gadget Lab will ship out to a far-flung correspondent or producer whatever new equipment is needed for covering a story or trying an experimental reporting technique. (Please return within two weeks.)

With drones, Hernandez remains cautious; he’s loathe to send out a camera drone to a CNN journalist (even in a country where commercial drone use isn’t prohibited, as is the case now in the U.S.) since today’s generation of drones are notoriously difficult to fly safely unless the operator is well trained. That doesn’t stop Hernandez from experimenting with drone photography and videography with CNN journalists; but he’s more likely to send along a colleague who’s a “McGuyver” type to pilot the loaned drone and troubleshoot.

How far to look ahead?

In an earlier futurist interview, I spoke with Bryan David Johnson of Intel, the semi-conductor giant. If you read that, you know that Intel’s futurists and strategic-foresight division are charged with making as-accurate-as-possible forecasts about consumers’ behavior and technology use about seven years out — the time it takes to go from start to finish for an Intel chip (say, for now-futuristic driverless cars’ communications and entertainment systems).

At a news company like CNN, there’s still the need to look a decade out and try to define likely scenarios that news providers will have to deal with. But there’s a more-urgent need to forecast two or three years out, and to experiment today with new news tools that will be in common use by CNN journalists in that time frame. Ditto for training CNN’s large and geographically spread workforce on new digital-communications tools and techniques, as well as educating them on important trends — another component of Hernandez’s job.

It all makes for a fascinating and enviable job for Hernandez (who, by the way, is able to split his physical time between working in San Diego, his hometown, and at CNN’s Atlanta headquarters because of what new communications technology makes possible).

I wonder why, as we near 2014, there aren’t more full-time futurists at large news organizations. Why is Hernandez the only one I’ve been able to identify? Perhaps it’s the term: “futurist.” If it sounds like a position that a media company can do without, then use the more formal term: “strategic foresight.” VP or Director of Strategic Foresight.

Victor Hernandez needs more colleagues across the news industry. … Multi-talented news business visionaries who work on the future full time.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!