What will partly work – robots and journalism

What I’m listening to as I type: The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars (30th Anniversary 2CD Edition)

 

Daleks - climbing stairs since 1988Among the umpteen things robots struggle to do are climb stairs and show empathy.

CoBot, developed at Carnegie Mellon university’s Robotics Institute, deals with the stairs issue by waiting by  the lift and begging passersby to press the button for the floor it needs.

In asking for our help, the robot is tapping into the empathy most of us feel when we see weakness in another. Even an inanimate other. (Although I suspect more than one mischievous human will have sent CoBot to the wrong floor).

I’ve been thinking about robots recently. Partly because of an excellent report in the Economist and partly because I’ve been thinking about what journalistic skills can and can’t be taught to the drones and algorithms doing some of our reporting.

I once worked with a young reporter who was a dreadful writer and a promising journalist. When the newsroom emptied into the local pub at the end of a long shift, he’d work the bar, glass of coke in hand (he wouldn’t drink), and chat to everyone – hunting out stories and gossip and contacts.

While we sat in “our” corner, moaning about editors and readers and the unrealistic expectations of both, he would still be working. I once asked him why and he was confused by the question. “Why wouldn’t I?” he said.

Nosiness; curiosity; a need to know what others know; always wanting to ask the question beyond the comfort zone; being the stranger people open up to in a bar, on a train, at a crime scene… are these journalistic skills or personal attributes? And can they be taught?

I tell my students that the most important skill a journalist can have is curiosity.

Not only about the big stuff – who owns what, why that war started, who’s spying on who – but curiosity about the everyday. What’s going on with that couple having the whispered argument? What brought that guy to counting up pennies to buy his pint?

News is what’s happening, journalism is what might be happening.

The stories that young reporter picked up were sometimes great, sometimes dull and usually needed rewriting.  Narrative Science’s news-writing algorithm would probably have done a tidier job.

But robots and algorithms can only work with what we give them. They need us to push the button to get them to right floor. And no matter how many buttons we press, we can’t make a robot curious.

(I realise I’m concentrating on words here, but ask any photo-journalist whether their best picture is down to gut response to a moment or an eye for framing a shot. We can only teach part of both.)

Let’s wander back to that pub and imagine my junior reporter being replaced by a story-seeking robot. Say 10 years from now (because the stair climbing thing is still an issue).

Robots don’t do thinking on their feet. They need to have  a pretty basic mission – like hoovering up crumbs, mowing grass, or pulling hospital trolleys, to be able to do the job without needing a human operator.  Variations in environment or task usually need to be dealt with by programming on the go.

Our story-seeking bot would have sensors so it could maneouver around the bar without bumping into people or knocking over drinks. It could be programmed with a databank of names and faces so it can spot the local Councillor or retired footballer. All of these are possible now.

But it’s the empathy bits that our bot would struggle with. How does a robot know when to make eye contact and when to look away? How does it know when it’s better to change the subject? When to press for a response and when to let someone be? When to ask a different question to get a better answer?

Asking questions - it's not a game

Asking questions – it’s not a game

 

Maybe our story-gathering robot doesn’t need empathy, it just needs to listen in a non-threatening way.

Alexander Reben and Brent Hoff  are filmmakers using story-gathering robots to document how and why we would open our hearts to robots. Their Cubie bots are small and cute with smiley faces drawn onto their cardboard shell.

They’ve been programmed to ask psychologically-proven questions  to encourage people to open up to them.

There are things robot reporters are already doing pretty well – like providing cheaper disaster footage; or data-reliant stories for tiny audiences. These are not robots as we imagine  them, but software and drones.

Media outlets are increasingly using algorithmic software to produce stories and drones to capture eyewitness content. Data is fed in, the algorithm adds structure, and an acceptable story is produced. Narrative Science’s algorithms fill the reporting gaps left by our contracting news industryschool sports, business data, etc.

It’s all our fault really – us teachers of journalists. Every time we teach a trainee to write a story with the who, what, where and when within the first two pars, we’re making it easier to write by algorithm.

Two years ago, scenes of flooding in Wiltshire were captured by a viewer with his own drone and sent to the BBC. Now every man and his newsroom seems to own a drone. Here’s the Telegraph’s drone report from the floods earlier this year, and flood footage posted in the last few days by the Washington Post.

In the US, media companies recently filed court documents arguing the Civil Aviation Authority is “hindering” free speech and press freedom by restricting commercial use of drones (ie, use by newspapers but not by government agencies or hobbyists).

But with 954 journalists killed in the last ten years (to time of writing), how long before we’re habitually sending robots into war zones instead of reporters?

A robot can capture pictures, record what people say and be controlled at a distance by a journalist-operator, perhaps feeding it questions to ask.  Safer, remote gathering of what’s happening on the ground could mean we get closer to the reality of those trapped by war or disaster.

 

With my ex-news editor head on, I can see the usefulness of robots, drones and algorithms as reporting tools.

I doubt I’d ever send a robot to newsgather in a pub (unless it was full of zombies or bombs) but I could see me sending it to report court proceedings, or council meetings, or a press conference  – anywhere where being there to gather details, a photo and a couple of quotes is better than not sending a reporter at all.

We shouldn’t see these as technologies that will take jobs from journalists (that’s happening in any case) but as tools that could help us report more of what’s happening in the world – and perhaps push journalism to concentrate a bit more on the ‘why’, rather than the ‘what’ or ‘who’.

Robots are only what we make them to be. It’s our choice whether a drone is an eyewitness, a spy, or a killer. And the line between eyewitness and spy for drone journalism is one we’ve already crossed.

The key question is not what can robots, drones and algorithms do now, but what might someone might make them do in the future? And that includes how we choose to use them as journalists.

What will work – journalism’s future

What I’m listening to as I type: Wounded Rhymes

Twice a year I give a lecture to journalism students on where I think journalism is going.

For obvious reasons, I rewrite the lecture each time I deliver it. Often minutes before I deliver it. It’s also more interactive than I can show in a post, but this is it, pretty much…

First, two videos – one from 1981 and one from 2011, to illustrate how the technology of delivering the news has changed in thirty years:

Now the one from 2011 – apologies for the music…

What I love most about the first video is that the pioneering souls who took part in this radical e-newspaper experiment had to cut out a coupon and post it back to the San Francisco Chronicle!

But what’s most interesting is that this happened in 1981 – ten years before Big Tim’s worldwide web went public.

The 2011 video focuses on what already today seems a limited range of news gathering tech. However,  the changes haven’t just been technical – twenty years on from the birth of the web  it’s the social change in the way we consume news that has had the biggest impact on the business of news.

The process of journalism has changed alongside our behaviour. We expect news we’re interested in to be available to us whenever we want it and wherever we are. The business of making money from journalism has had to fit into an open-all-hours, shop of news model.

 

Still from multimedia immersion rap videoRemember the picture above from the 2011 video, illustrating what’s happening to newspapers’ profits?

More accurately, what’s happening to the business that journalism depends on – which is advertising. The traditional business model for journalism, hasn’t been to sell journalism but to sell the attention the journalism attracts.

Here’s a better representation:

US newspaper ad incomeThe chart above, reproduced on Prof. Mark Perry’s economics blog, shows how quickly the money is disappearing – US newspaper ad income in 2012 was the same as in 1950. But the cost of producing a newspaper isn’t the same as in 1950.

The picture isn’t any different in the UK – 2012 should have been a bumper year for selling ads; the Olympics, the Jubilee, yet national newspaper ad spend actually fell by five percent in 2012 and dropped further in 2013.

TimetopanicIt should have been a neat equation – money from ads offline – in newspapers, magazines, on TV and radio, goes down but online ad income goes up to fill the gaps.

Except for every new dollar made online, newspapers lost 10.

The issue is that it’s not the traditional media companies making money from online ads, it’s the new kids on the block – Google, eBay, Amazon, Facebook, etc. But mostly it’s Google:

Google Ad Revenue Now More Than U.S. Print Publications CombinedHowever, we’ve been here before. The news industry is always changing. Like a snake shedding its skin every few years. Right now it’s changing faster than ever – driven by that technological and social revolution in the way we communicate and share news and information. There’s a another big change we’re living through  – the mobile revolution.

Radio took off because it’s mobile – it went with us in our car, our office, our home.  When it stopped being a piece of living room furniture; when it became small enough to take to the beach, radio took off and its content changed with its new users.

Now we take our mobile phones with us and what we carry – our phone, our handbag – is part of who we are.

The rise of mobile use is extraordinary – driven faster by its usefulness as a social web device:

  • Half the world now owns a mobile phone
  • One-in-seven people across the globe are on Facebook
  • 3bn hours of video are watched each month on YouTube
  • Over 60% of smartphone/tablet owners read news on it
  • Up to 24,000 pictures a day were sent to BBC during riots
  • 17% and growing of all web traffic is now through mobile

 

Putting global mobile use in contextChetan Sharma’s chart, above,  shows how the 6bn mobile accounts globally (not 6bn people with a mobile phone) compares against other things we might need. There are more mobile phone accounts than people with access to safe drinking water or electricity.

We love our mobiles but we wouldn’t love them quite so much if they didn’t deliver things that were more important to us than electricity, or bank accounts, or the internet.

So, will mobiles save the news industry?

Nope. Again, some businesses are making good money from mobile ads but not the news industry.

This is the sum (from Michael Wolff) that’s generally used to explain the problem: $100 offline = $10 on web = $1 in mobile.

The news industry, with its the ad-dependent business model, just can’t make enough money. The value of ads is worn away with each technological iteration.

But if you have a business model like Facebook’s,  where it costs comparative peanuts to generate all the content your users want (because it’s your users producing the content) you don’t need to charge  much for your mobile ads to make money.

So, the news industry is at this stage:

Running round like headless chickens

But why am I telling you all this? Why should profits and charts matter to a room full of student journalists?

  • Because you should know where the news industry is going.
  • Because  you need to know where journalism is going (and how you go with it)
  • Because the industry and the journalism may not be going in the same direction.

But mostly because journalism matters and because journalists matter.

There are stories that still need to be told. There is so much news that isn’t getting reported, or not reported well enough.

Here’s a handful of lesser-told stories I picked to fill just one slide:

  • Half of all under-5s that die, die in southern Africa.
  • Four-in-ten children globally don’t survive their first month; one-in-three children starve to death
  • WW2 didn’t stop wars: 51 wars and major conflicts in 1992; 21 in 2002; 38 in 2011… around 34 today.
  • More people have been killed in genocides since 1960 than died in WW2 concentration camps
  • 17 countries have higher life expectancy than UK
  • Over 45k UK homes will be repossessed this year.

The journalism needs to be done. It doesn’t matter what’s happening in the news industry or to advertising profits. We need good journalism. We don’t need rewritten press releases (or regurgitated content with 25 headlines).

And journalists matter. They’re still out there fighting and sometimes dying to bring in stories:
1017 journalists killed since 1992Not just ‘trained’ journalists – citizen journalists and netizens on the ground in conflict zones. The biggest change the web has delivered in news is the range of people delivering news.

Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger describes it as ‘open journalism’ – a shared activity with journalists, readers and others delivering and developing the story. I love the Guardian ad:

Journalism is still about having the skills and drive to find the story – like the reporter in his pyjamas in the Guardian ad talking to his contact.

It’s not about the technology, it’s about how you use the technology to become a better journalist how you use all these new tools to help you tell the stories that need to be told.

I’m going to finish with four predictions – the things I think are on the horizon for journalism.

  1. More news stories originating in computer algorithms, eg Narrative Science
  2. News will become more personal, more locative, and more recommended –  eg Summly, Buzzfeed, Facebook news feed…
  3. Journalism split further into similar and short-form vs different and long-form – eg Medium, Matter
  4. We’ll move away from devices to everywhere access to news and info – google glass, iwatch..

Narrative Science uses computer algorithms to turn data – business information, sports reports submitted by amateurs, into news stories.

We’ve made that easy by writing, and teaching, journalism ‘rules’ and  journalese. Every time your player “attacks” the goal or your “sick” youth “knifes” your “OAP”, you – we – have made it easier for a computer to write the story.

We don’t yet have a ‘tripadvisor’ news recommender, but every app or curator that that sorts through existing news to give you only what you say you’re interested in, is making you more conservative, less curious than you should be.

We used to go to our news source. We would walk up to the TV, or go and buy a newspaper, or sit at the PC. Then we took it with us – the radio in the car, our laptop, our mobile phone. Increasingly, it’s wherever we are – waiting for us to arrive and ask for access. By tapping a table, or waving a sleeve, or nodding our head.

Google glass is currently in semi-public testing and will launch in 2013. There are all kinds of issues around privacy and usability but it’s still very new.

As you watch this  last video, think about where Google glass and other wearable tech could take journalism? Think about what you will do with everywhere, real-time access to gathering and uploading information. Think about who will see what you do.