What I’m listening to as I type: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter
I’ve been writing a book. It’s why you haven’t heard from me for a while. The clue was in the previous post (crikey, a whole year ago!) about my trip to The Washington Post. Anyway, the book got done and I am SO over getting up at 4am to write.
The book, ‘Future Journalism: Where we are and where we’re going’, sits on a wobbly seesaw between academic tome and creative nonfiction. Nice things have been said about it, which is gratifying. But the point of this post is to summarise some of things I found during my look at the raggedy edges of where journalism might be going.
I started on the book in January 2016 and finished writing it in January 2017. And what a goddamn crazy year to try to write about journalism and its possible futures! Here’s a slide I used recently to sum up that craziness:
One of the things I focus on is change and why it happens, and I use the analogy in the book, and in my teaching, of the big truck of change. Think of it as a front-wheel-drive truck, with technology and behaviour pushing the speed, and markets and regulation chugging along behind, sort of stabilising the load.
When you get a monster truck of change, like Facebook or Google, those wheels are even bigger; the traction even faster. Technology and behaviour driving things forward, but the bigger and faster the change, the more likely you’ll get market slow-down or government regulation drag.
As part of the research for the book, I interviewed editors or founders at the Guardian, The Washington Post, Vice, BuzzFeed, Narrative Science, Bellingcat, and Circa, to get a sense of how things have changed in both traditional news companies and with the new media kids on the block. To give you a flavour of the changes I saw… here’s another slide:
Vice is also interesting. It started as a sort-of community magazine back in 1984, and has grown into a mega-multi-media company operating in 30 countries and with its own TV news shows on HBO and YouTube. And if you’ve never seen their stuff, it means you’re probably not their audience. Like Buzzfeed, they’re focused on getting to the people they want to reach.
A lot of my focus was on the use of new technology in journalism – AI, AR, VR, 360, games, and so on. And robot journalists of course. But you’ll already know that when journalists write about robots we’re usually talking about AI or algorithms, rather than the walking-around stuff. We don’t have any robot journalists, at least not yet. Probably because there isn’t the money in journalism that there is in defence.
However in 2010, one lab did experiment with a robot journalist of sorts. Put Intelligent Systems Informatics Lab’s ‘journalist robot’ in a room and it would work out what’s going on by exploring its environment – gathering data to assess what’s unusual – the ‘anomalies’ that all journalists look for.
It could question people in the room and search the internet to find out more. If something seemed newsworthy (against pre-programmed ideas of what is news), the robot could write a basic story and publish it to the web.
What it couldn’t do was open the door of the room afterwards and leave it.
We can teach a robot or AI to mimic curiosity using techniques of discovery or interrogation to find out what’s going on, but can we teach it to be curious?
And we can – and are – teaching AIs to use journalism tropes the five Ws, the inverted pyramid, etc. to construct a readable story. Something for journalists and journalism teachers to ponder. News is what’s happening, journalism is discovering what might be happening. It’s becoming easier to get non-humans doing the news bit, so we should focus human efforts on the journalism bit is.
Media outlets are already using “robot journalists” in the form of algorithmic software or AIs to produce stories. In 2013, Narrative Science’s algorithms produced and published around 1.5 million amateur sports stories. In 2015, it was over four million. Mostly Little League reports read by a few families.
Automated Insights produced 1.5 billion stories in 2016. Mostly internal information for companies and individuals rather than broader business news. The Washington Post used its in-house AI software to produce thousands of real-time news reports about the 2016 Olympics. Syllabs automatically produced 150,000 web pages for Le Monde in four hours during France’s 2015 election, reporting results from 36,000 municipalities
We shouldn’t see these as technologies that will take jobs from journalists, but as tools that could help journalists report more of what’s happening, and to concentrate a bit more on the ‘why’, rather than the ‘what’ or ‘who’.
I mentioned earlier about the way new media companies such as Vice and Buzzfeed are trying to engage a younger audience in news.
Young people may not read many newspapers but that doesn’t mean they don’t read news. Most 18-year-olds see more news than 1950s teenagers did because the world is constantly interrupting them; constantly pricking their social bubble via their smartphone. The issue is not whether young people see what’s going on in the world, but what they choose to take notice of.
So how do journalists get their attention? There are two basic answers to that question.
The first is report on the subjects that a younger audience is more likely to be interested in.
The second is to report on subjects in an interesting way.
For example, both BuzzFeed and Vice target that millennial audience and both told me that a massive subject area for them is mental health.
It’s not that traditional media isn’t covering mental health issues, but coverage is focused on mental illness and disability – the experience an older audience may have of autism among their children, or dementia among their parents.
Next, engage them by covering issues in a different way. A funny headline; a quiz, a video, these all help but the core – as with all journalism – is to make people care about that story; that lived human experience.
Immersive journalism pioneer Nonny de la Peña creates VR projects to give people first-person experiences of a situation. This image is from one of her VR pieces – Project Syria which puts you in the middle of a rocket attack and a refugee camp:
In ‘Inside the Haiti Earthquake’ Andrea Nemtin and Ian Dunbar place us in the role of aid worker or journalist or survivor caught up in the 2010 disaster, and we make narrative choices ‘playing’ as that character.
One area that particularly interests me is the integration of games and news – it’s my next research area. But real game mechanics, as opposed to a quiz or bit of a puzzle – isn’t being used in news yet. Juliana Ruhfus, at Al Jazeera, is one of a tiny handful of journalists using actual games in news, with work such as Hacked and Pirate Fishing.
But it’s the work being done by independent game creators such as Lucas Pope and 11-Bit Studios in tackling news issues, or gamemakers such as Camp Santo or Chinese Room to build emotionally-immersive worlds, that interest me. They show how we might create empathetic journalism using games as the medium.
So we’re in a new journalism matrix. Of reporters and journalists and bloggers and citizens and algorithms, and a whole bunch of things that gather the news, and another whole bunch of things that deliver the news, and another bunch of things that help the news get to where the audience is spending its time. I said it had been a difficult year to write about the future of journalism. It was but it was also tremendously exciting and interesting.
Throughout the year I thought about and worried about the profession and the role of journalists and the media itself in undermining the value of journalism. I came up with five predictions – or possibly hopes and aspirations – for the future of journalism.
- The fight for journalism will have to start with redefining journalism
- Truth is more important than we realized. Journalism has to be ready for a fake news backlash
- Worries over “fake news” will morph into concerns over news “have nots” and “want nots”
- Journalism will need its AI helpers
- Google and Facebook will have to take their role as news publishers more seriously
The news industry has lost the trust of much of its audience, and unless we can rebuild that trust, we’ll lose more of our audience. The starting point for recovering that trust will be to define journalism so that our audience will be able to recognise and value it. We have to redefine what journalism is and what it is capable of, to re-establish why journalism is necessary.
Legacy news media which choose to only reflect the protectionist, nationalist views of older people are fighting over a generation which will die out. Newer media such as BuzzFeed and Vice, trying to reach that younger generation by reporting news that matters to them, will have to win the battle to reach that follow-on audience for news before it loses faith in journalism.
A re-assessment of journalism as being fundamentally about discovering and reporting truth, with a commitment to avoid bias, will make it easier for an audience tired of “news lies” to find real journalism. And make it easier for journalism to defend its purpose against governments and agencies increasingly using ‘fake news’ as a stick to regulate all news.
We could argue that there have always been news “want-nots” and, from the early 20th century, a majority public swayed by the bias of majority media. But the issue now is two-fold: a majority media that has become more biased, more skewed towards directing rather than informing public opinion; and publics spending more of their time within filtered news bubbles.
The challenge for journalism will become less about filtering out fake news and more about how to reach people with real news.
Journalists are never first to new technology, what we do is find a way to use technology that has become, or is on the way to becoming dominant.
Mobile phones became a tool of the trade as well as an extension of the personal. Similarly, when personal AIs become mobile (instead of stay-at-home devices such as Amazon’s Echo) and more developed (as opposed to the still clunky Siri, Cortana and Google Assistant) they’ll become personalised assistants we not only use, but become emotionally attached to.
Journalists will use their personal AI to help research and deliver stories. But more importantly than that, AIs could do the heavy lifting in grading and delivering news. Rather than stop the signal by imposing legal responsibilities on news carriers such as Google and Facebook, use the processing opportunity of AI to grade it.
Journalism needs to be around the table as AI is developed, to become part of who determines and controls the values that will be built into AI as it becomes the next big shift in communication technology.
Google and Facebook as responsible news publishers? That’s a given. At a TED talk back in 2004, Page and Brin talked about Google’s responsibility to provide the “right” information: “we view ourselves like a newspaper or a magazine – that we should provide very objective information”. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has said his company is not just a technology company but also a media company – just not a traditional one.
But accepting their role as news publishers also means accepting the responsibility for news’ role in democratic societies. The web is being corralled by big tech companies, while news businesses compete with each other for the public’s attention. For journalism to deliver on its higher democratic purpose it needs to be seen outside of the business of news as non-competitive; a product necessary to a society advancing, rather than just functioning.
Those big tech companies need to do more than take their role as news publishers seriously, they need to take responsibility for helping journalism step up to that higher purpose.
PS: You can buy my book here: Future Journalism: Where We Are and Where We’re Going : )