I read a great blog post on the future of news today from Kris Hammond, the CTO of Narrative Science. His thoughts echoed a lot of things I’ve been thinking about and while he said a lot of it better than I can, it made me think that is was long past due for getting some of those thoughts down on digital paper.
Hammond’s main ideas are focused on the future of news, and what I’ve generally been terming ‘information ubiquity’ to anyone who’ll listen.
When I say ubiquity, I’m referring to the idea that information is becoming as readily available as the air we breathe. Technology is allowing us to advance to such a point where facts are increasingly available on a near-instantaneous basis from all kinds of resources. Any basic piece of information, say the capital of Minnesota, is no more than a couple keystrokes, clicks, or words (thanks Siri) away.
One of the points Hammond makes, is that this progression, through successive advancements in technology, will continue to build our repository of facts/data.
“…language understanding and data extraction systems are improving to a point at which much of the information that is currently human readable yet impenetrable to computers will be itself transformed into data; data that can be used as the driver for the generation of new narratives. This means that textual descriptions of events, government meetings, corporate announcements, plus the ongoing stream of social media will be transformed into not just machine readable, but machine understandable representations of what is happening in the world.”
In short, computers will “understand” more and more about the way we communicate, such to turn things into hard data. Think of articles we read, conversations we have, presentations we deliver, these things will start to be just as interpretable to a computer as any other binary code. That fact base I mentioned, capitals of Minnesota and such, will continue to get much bigger.
It’s not only going to get bigger, but more immediately accessible and transparent. Partially aided by the same technology we use today (e.g., manual searching), but also by new technologies Hammond alludes to when he describes ‘the generation of new narratives’
All of this is very exciting…unless you’re in the news business…in which case this may be terrifying.
I say that because facts and basic information are the core tenets of standard objective journalism coverage. In undergrad as a reporter for the Daily Collegian, the routine was pretty simple, go to an event, open your eyes, and write down what happens. Maybe talk to a couple other folks there. Summarize the key points. It’s a role focused on rote gathering and processing of information (Note: this is why I didn’t like reporting and enjoyed being a columnist much much more)
But that rote gathering and processing is what can be drastically reduced in a world where many of those events can now be interpreted systematically by advanced software. It’s already happening in some areas where the content processing can already be automated (basic sports game reports built off of box scores, corporate earnings release previews built off financial data). It’s not hard to imagine these types of reports creating standard, objective summaries for all kinds of events.
But there are a few reasons why I think journalists don’t have to get quite so upset. Although I do think such developments will force a complete realignment in the way we think about journalism, the industry will not go away completely. There are some items, which I expand on below, that I think will become all the more critical for anyone who aspires to a career in journalism or any writing with higher professional standards and paychecks than this blog.
Curation will still matter
Facts are becoming more easily gatherable, storable, and reportable. There’s no way to slow that down. However, with newer and easier ways to gather and report on facts, that’s not just going to create a couple new articles a week, it’s going to create an avalanche of information (if you don’t think things are bad now, just wait!).
Local papers which might run a couple high school baseball recaps might now have the ability to auto-generate five pages of stories including all the local high school games, little league games, and 3-year old T-ball games (In which the lead might be: “The Dolphins defeated the Pirates by a score of 5-4. Jacob Marshall scored the tying run when his ground ball to second base was interrupted by a butterfly that distracted the entire Pirates infield. Juice boxes and orange slices were had by all.”)
So if such articles become easily creatable, you’ll suddenly be faced with more and more of them competing for your attention. Someone’s going to have to help you out, unless you want to quit your job to drink from the media fire hose full-time (a move I’ve often contemplated)
There is absolutely a role for someone to help decide which articles are the most critical for your attention. Taking it back a step, there’s also a critical role for someone to decide which of these easily gathered facts are worthy of an article to even fight for your attention. In my view, that’s a role that could potentially be filled by a human filter.
With that said, there are technology solutions which can also get the job done. The first counter-argument to this type of role would be that we’ll source all our information from our social media channels (e.g., friends on Twitter, Facebook shares). Companies like Flipboard are already trying to build experiences that allow users to get the media they want before they specifically ask for it. So certainly there will be competing forces trying to deliver the information you need/want, but I feel as though there will continue to be a need for curators who aggregate the fire hose and bottle it for you.
Long form and analysis will still matter
Some information is becoming relatively standardized, and more pieces traditionally within the purview of the journalist will continue to shift. Speeches from a public figure, which today are covered by reporters, may one day be recapped automatically (I look forward to someday when a presidential candidate creates a series of system errors in the natural language interpretation software through either making up words or stringing together illogical phrases)
But while these pieces of data become more collectible, it’s hard to imagine a software program creating the traditional longer stories. Feature stories which come from finding sources, interviewing them, and asking the right questions. Investigative journalism, which should be greatly enhanced with increased data availability, should obviously still have a home. That’s not to say data mining technology or advanced narrative creation can’t be created to do it, but for the time being, I don’t think computers are ready for prime time. If anything, programs to create basic content should free up more resources which can allow for deeper investigations, and more effort around hunting for really impactful news.
Unless there’s a Woodwardbot and Bernsteintron in some technology company’s lab right now.
Having an opinion will still matter (as long as you can entertain)
The last way to keep a position in journalism is the most obvious, and the one that stretches further away from what journalism is at its core. It’s really just about being an entertaining writer and offering something no one else can.
One of the clear trends over the last few years in traditional print media (at least that which I’m reading), is a progression towards more opinion and personalized writing styles. This happens beyond print, as any viewer of ESPN can tell you. Writers, at least those that develop consistent followings, are those which cultivate their own personal style and in many cases, more opinion-based takes on their field.
If you look at regional sports coverage, I’ve noticed a huge shift in the reporters’ tone and styling as they’ve moved to do more blogging and tweeting. The game recap, that is, telling me exactly what happened, has become pretty irrelevant to me, but I do look to these trusted sources for their opinion on what happened. I also like interacting with them via Twitter, live chats, etc.
That builds my relationship with them as a fan, and I’ll continue to seek them out for what they have to say.
Of course, one could argue this has some seriously negative ramifications for sports writing as a whole. In particular, an encouragement towards attention-grabbing statements, inflammatory rhetoric, and basically the Stephen A. Smithing of the content. To which I’d say, I think that ship has already sailed.
While the advancement of technology has brought an end to many occupations, the buggy whip maker, the elevator operator, and others, recent development should not suggest that reporters will make a similar path to extinction.
True, the type of work may change, and the profile of those who belong in the field may shift as technology becomes a greater tool in the media arsenal. But just because technology will soon allow for the codification of many forms of information you once could only understand by being there, there will still be plenty of original thoughts to have, and words to write.
Of course if that’s not true, you can always start a blog. I guarantee your mom will read it.