Kinzen’s Áine Kerr: ‘The journalism industry is facing a moment of crisis’

18 Jul 2019

Áine Kerr speaking at Inspirefest 2019. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

‘Accidental entrepreneur’ Áine Kerr on what a career at Facebook taught her and how Kinzen is bridging a gap between publishers and readers.

Áine Kerr is COO and co-founder of Kinzen, a company that provides personalised news products for readers and publishers.

She previously worked for Facebook as its global head of journalism partnerships in New York, for Storyful as its managing editor, and for the Irish Independent, The Irish Times and the Irish Examiner as a political correspondent and current affairs reporter.

Kerr is on the board of the Institute for Future Media and Journalism (FuJo) at Dublin City University and was named Woman of the Year in Media by Irish Tatler in 2018.

In May this year she took to the Inspirefest stage in Dublin to discuss disinformation in online media.

Describe your role and what you do.

My job is multifaceted, stretching from HR and recruitment, operations, corporate governance, to partnerships, business development, marketing and PR. Inevitably, I find myself rewiring my brain several times a day as I duck from financial spreadsheets to creative brainstorms, product roadmaps and partner pitches.

There’s a great line in The Messy Middle by Scott Belsky about how the middle of a venture is like a lengthy trip without windows. Everyone originally got on the bus knowing the starting point and having bought a ticket to the final destination but, day to day, you have to stay stubborn and resilient about what the final destination looks like, but flexible about how you get there.

As the person often trying to help figure out our end points, start points and everything else in between, I’m constantly reviewing the short-term and long-term geocoordinates of the bus, finding faster routes and necessary pit stops, assessing the tricky terrain ahead, and making sure some of the fundamentals are done every day so there’s fuel in the tank.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

Facebook taught me the concept of ‘ruthless prioritisation’ – something that was difficult to grasp at first having come directly from a start-up. But, after years working in traditional newsrooms, start-ups and a major corporation, I’ve learned the need to prioritise; to start at the end and work backwards in everything you do so you don’t get lost in the daily trenches.

‘People are hungry for order in the chaos’

In order to find that focus and clarity, I like to spend a few hours every Sunday night prepping for the week ahead, boiling down what will make the week successful – where I can capture some wins, where there are blockers and likely distractions. I’m a fan of Venn diagrams and always find myself coming back to the Ikigai, the multilayered Venn diagram that helps you find your purpose in life. For me, I tend to think about my life inside the Ikigai in three parts: me as the COO of a start-up, me as a force for good giving something back and me as a person within my family.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

The journalism industry that I love is facing a moment of crisis.

From the publisher perspective, revenues have collapsed, mistrust is growing and redundancies are commonplace. It comes on the back of years of disruption, during which time everyone became a publisher, the means of consuming content became incredibly diverse and the distribution of content moved outside the control of the media industry on to third-party platforms. The advertising model is now broken and publishers are trying to find new ways to build trust, loyalty and ultimately new revenue lines.

From the perspective of people, they have become rightly irritated by the amount of advertisements they have to consume to get to free content, the cookies that then track them across the internet, and they’re overwhelmed by the sheer volume of content before them.

But people are hungry for order in the chaos. And publishers are hungry for engaged readers. Kinzen is the bridge between the two.

We believe our personalised technology solves both needs and ultimately connects people with quality journalism, providing them with experiences that are relevant, trustworthy and quality. These personalised experiences will then in turn build greater loyalty and revenues for publishers.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Kinzen’s target market is publishers seeking to break their dependence on ad-funded platforms and develop reader revenue solutions on their own platforms. We aim to fix the damage done by ‘black-box’ recommender systems, which hijacked the unconscious biases of users, trapping them in echo chambers and endless distraction. Our ‘personalisation-as-a-service’ product helps partners convert occasional users into loyal subscribers and reduce their dependence on big tech platforms. Kinzen helps publishers engage and monetise users directly on their branded digital properties.

Within all of that, we recognise that we need to build technology with a different mantra. Less of the ‘move fast and break things’ of old, and more of the ‘move slow and fix things’ that will produce transparent, collaborative and people-powered products. The industry at large needs to move away from a model that is about keeping people scrolling for as long as possible in order to consume more advertising, to a model which is about the concept of time well spent.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

‘The only constant in life is change’ is a mantra I repeat back to myself a lot. And that willingness to adapt, change, evolve is I guess why I’ve been a teacher, journalist, editor, platform executive and now something of an accidental entrepreneur.

Growing up, I always wanted to be both a journalist and a teacher, and at age 15, when choosing subjects for Leaving Cert even before I’d sat the Junior Cert, I thought I was being forced into a binary choice early in life. Thankfully, I got sound advice to undertake a holistic degree, to gain some life experience, to follow a vocation in teaching and have all of that inform my journalism later.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

I like to live life with a principle of ‘no regrets but constant learnings’. So sure, there’ve been mistakes, but thankfully none that could be deemed catastrophic.

If I could go back in time, it would be to my January 2014 self in Storyful, post-acquisition by News Corporation, and say: ‘Slow your roll.’ In that opening quarter, we felt we had a lot to prove, to show new scale, new ideas, to diversify, to hire. Transitioning from an Irish start-up with global impact to one ramping up for bigger scale under the mothership of a major global force was a whirlwind period.

And, while Storyful went on to thrive and continues to be the gold standard as a news agency the world over, I wish I had taken more time to exhale in that new world order of 2014, to look around more corners, think deeply on risks and scenarios, and ultimately forecast that our team – our greatest asset – were going to be inundated with offers from other companies, such was their unique skillset.

The retention plan I deployed over two years post-acquisition was largely successful in holding on to key talent but it often felt reactive and emotionally draining. If I had a do-over, I’d double down on risk assessments and put proactive mitigation plans in place early so you conserve energy for the big-picture stuff, and not what can feel like constant firefighting

How do you get the best out of your team?

Taking the Myers Briggs personality test and coming to understand the 16 different personality types some years ago was a pivotal moment for me in assessing how to manage different people differently.

And so, I try to manage knowing that some people are introverted, some are extroverted; and communicate, learn, brainstorm in different ways.

In recognising the different needs and priorities of teams, I try to be consistent in leading with empathy and to always ask questions, acknowledge people’s issues and problem-solve together. That only works when you have trust, and you can only demonstrate trust by delegating and creating a space where people learn from mistakes.

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and what’s needed to be more inclusive?

The media industry often feels very male, white and middle-class. And therefore unrepresentative of our new vibrant communities.

When we drill down into issues like ‘fake news’, mistrust is at the heart of what could be termed a wicked problem. Mistrust grew out of issues such as a lack of transparency in our journalism, a deluge of divisive clickbait content, inadequate news literacy training, and people feeling that their communities, their identities, were not adequately represented by and in the media. That’s inevitable when you see local newsrooms closing across the US.

‘When we drill down into issues like “fake news”, mistrust is at the heart of what could be termed a wicked problem’

Ireland has similar problems to the US and that was confirmed in an interview I read recently with Lois Kapila, the publisher of the Dublin Inquirer, who complained that Irish media is “very white”. The BBC is leading the way in hardwiring diversity and inclusion into everything it does, on and off the air, with commitments to ensuring they are representing and hiring disabled people, women, ethnic minorities and LGBT people in order to ensure their content reflects the public they serve. Irish publishers and broadcasters need to follow this example.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career? If so, how?

Male allies are those who speak up for women when women (often) aren’t in the room. I’m fortunate to have had many men in my life who’ve spoken up for me. Sean Flynn in The Irish Times, Harry McGee in the Irish Examiner, Andy Mitchell in Facebook, Mark Little in Storyful and now Kinzen. And there have been so many women along the way who’ve pushed me outside my comfort zone. Margaret Ward, Dearbhail McDonald, Lise Hand, Miriam Donohoe, Susan Spence, Karen Gordon, Fiona Campbell, Jane Barrett. The list goes on when I consider my parents and my aunts.

But if I could single out one person, it’s my fifth- and sixth-class teacher, Colette Daly. She helped me find my confidence, my voice. In those two years, I learned perseverance and determination when it came to learning, and realised that with hard graft and confidence I could achieve a lot for myself and for others around me.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

The Lean Startup, The Messy Middle, The Startup Way, Sprint and The Hard Thing About Hard Things have been fundamental in shaping how I think about managing teams and projects.

Chaos Monkeys, Zucked, What would Google Do? have been important reads in understanding the moment we find ourselves in from a digital media perspective.

Mostly I like reading books by strong, inspirational women. That means anything by Caitlin Moran (always meet your heroes), Emelie Pine’s Notes to Self, Mary Beard’s Women and Power, Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I could go on …

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

The single best thing I do for my mental health every week is to train for an hour six times a week. Often that’s a mix of gym workouts, resistance sessions at home, and one or two outdoor runs. Training is my fuel and refills the reserves when it comes to energy and clarity of thinking.

The rest of the essential routine relies on drinking good coffee, writing down my plans, playing with my daughter, getting a minimum of seven hours of sleep and finding at least 30 minutes every night to learn something new – whether it’s by reading, doing an online course or watching something like a TED talk. Finding ways to constantly learn and fulfil my innate curiosity is important so you consciously seek out those moments on the balcony of your brain, removed from the daily grind.

Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event celebrating the point where science, technology and the arts collide. Ultra Early Bird tickets for Inspirefest 2020 are available now.

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