What might work: Writing a book

What I’m listening to as I type: The Order Of Time

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:

FutureJournalismYearSlideOne 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:

FutureJournalismInterviewsSlide

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.

journalist-robot-recentHowever 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’.

robotfinally

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:

syria-1200x682In ‘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.

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Yep. I’m a Spider Jerusalem fan. Transmetropolitan Vol 1: Back on the Street

 

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.

  1. The fight for journalism will have to start with redefining journalism
  2. Truth is more important than we realized. Journalism has to be ready for a fake news backlash
  3. Worries over “fake news” will morph into concerns over news “have nots” and “want nots”
  4. Journalism will need its AI helpers
  5. 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  : )

What has to work: journalism by journalists

What I’m listening to as I type: Quixotic

 

My grandson will sometimes tell me: “I’m sad, nana.” That he says this is in itself a pretty joyful thing because he has autism, and for him to recognise and describe his emotion as ‘sadness’ is reassuring.

But today, I’m right there with him on the sadness meter.

I shouldn’t be. I’ve been commissioned to write a book and have spent the past week plugging in the first set of interviews – including a trip to Washington (I’m going to West Wing land!) and time with the extraordinarily helpful team at the Washington Post. The book, provisionally called ‘Future Journalism’, will pull together everything that excites and interests me about the business of news and give me an excuse to pick some very bright brains.

But today, thinking about that phrase ‘Future Journalism’ and my investigation, I feel sad.

Not the ‘future’ bit, I don’t for one moment believe journalism doesn’t have a future. While the future for current business models delivering journalism shifts and changes, and for many individual examples has collapsed (goodbye Indie newspaper, goodbye Spot.Us, goodbye Circa…), I don’t believe that news depends on newspaper owners.

Nor do I believe that the slow death of newspapers (beautifully captured in Will Steacy’s photo-essay) has meant the slow death of journalism.

Will Steacy's project photographing the Philadelphia Inquirer. Click image to see more.

Will Steacy’s project photographing the Philadelphia Inquirer. Click image to see more.

 

But I do think there’s a slow death of journalism going on and that the fault isn’t (or isn’t just) about collapsing ad revenues and expanding production costs, the responsibility is also ours: we journalists, we editors, we journalism teachers.

For every Spotlight or Snowden, there are hundreds of complaints about The Sun’s poor journalism and the Daily Mail’s dangerously misleading stories, and dozens of academic papers highlighting biased-reporting across our media.

 

Press Complaints Commission search March 31, 2016

 

Hell, even Obama blames us for Donald Trump.

We’re the people misusing statistics, or ignoring the tougher questions, or repeating the not-true story. It’s our job to get the journalism right – we shouldn’t need quangos or bloggers or Hollywood to remind us of our personal responsibility to integrity.

And we should not accept that the people we serve trust Wikipedia more than journalists, or that 64% of young Americans don’t trust what the media says, or that journalists are rated as only marginally more honest than bankers and builders. I couldn’t care less about click-baited headlines or celebrity-focused front pages, but I care that we’ve enabled that loss of faith in journalism.

You might argue ’twas ever thus: Kirk Douglas’s excoriating 1951 portrayal of truth-bending journalist Chuck Tatum as example.

Ace In The Hole - 2

Except it isn’t so very long since faith in journalists was the reverse of those 2015 surveys. The 1956 American Election Survey found 66% of citizens believed newspapers were fair, and in 1972 people had more trust in CBS anchor Walter Cronkite than in the president (source).

Public faith in a journalist’s ability – or willingness – to tell the truth has collapsed alongside, and almost as quickly, as the profession’s business model. We have to deal with that.

In my second week as news editor at a Northern daily, a woman rang the newsdesk and spoke to me about her missing teenage daughter. She’d been missing before but never as long as this. Her mother was worried about her daughter hanging around with young Asian men. She thought her daughter was drinking and maybe taking drugs; she’d lost control of her.  The police weren’t interested and social services had stopped answering calls from her. She didn’t know what to do.

You know where that story ends up, and I’d like to be able to say that when I took that phonecall to conference it kicked off a journalistic investigation that put horrendous human beings behind bars. But the reality is that we didn’t jump in until establishment voices – a courageous MP, police officers – started saying there was a story.

Spotlight wasn’t only about the story the Boston Globe journalists uncovered, it was also about a story that had been missed the first time around. We’re human, we’re busy, we have a lot of space to fill. But for journalism produced by journalists to have a future, we have to show our public that we’re more useful than Wikipedia and way more trustworthy than their accountant.

 

trust

Why startups fail – and why Moonfruit didn’t

What I’m listening to while I type: Time (The Revelator)

Couple of interesting things this morning via the UK Business Forums’ e-flyer that I thought worth a quick post.

First, the infographic below on ‘Why startups fail’ out of research by the Startup Genome Project.

 

Their ‘five core dimensions’ for success are pretty obvious: to succeed you need customers, the right product, a good team, a good/innovative business model, and a funding cushion. These are things all startup founders know but, as I’ve said before, knowing isn’t doing.

What’s interesting about the research is that they link success directly to keeping those  five core dimensions in balance during the scaling of the business – that ‘proper’ scaling means moving all five forward at the same pace, while allowing any of the five to grow faster than the others, leads to premature scaling and to startup failure. 

I’m not sure how much the concept equates to the reality, where growth is more like The Blob than those nice neat graphs, and when founder vision is half panic, half lightbulb moments. I’ll be looking in more detail at the project in a future post, in the meantime, here’s the story on Techcrunch.

The other useful piece in the e-flyer was this video interview with Moonfruit’s Joe White.

I mentioned his wife, Wendy Tan White, in my earlier post about women founders, and his perspective on the differences between running Moonfruit now and running it in the early days, pre-2000 dotcom crash, is interesting.

Among the points he makes are:

  • Despite the recession, the UK tech sector is “crazily buoyant” right now compared to other sectors
  • The recession is good for businesses like Moonfruit because, as they saw in 2008, the recession prompts more people to set up online businesses, as a secondary or main income, that make use of the sort of services Moonfruit supplies
  • It’s easier to launch a new web-tech business now because it’s cheaper, you need less startup capital to get going
  • The downside of that is that VCs expect you to be further down the road before you come to them.

His advice to startups? “Get as much done as you can before you go after funding.”