Vadim is the journalist program manager at Facebook and a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Subscribe to him here.
Disclaimer: A robot did not write this. Neither did an algorithm. As has been done for centuries, a human curated the information and produced this content. But that doesn’t mean that technology didn’t help.
While it’s become easier for journalists to find information, discover sources through the web, and use tools like Storify to curate content, the process still relies on having the bodies to scour for this information. And that’s the challenge.
In the newspaper industry, there were more than 13,000 newsroom jobs lost between 2006 and 2010, according to Pew’s State of the News Media report. At the same time, the amount of information available has grown at an astronomical rate. These two things are at odds.
The general fear in the industry is that with fewer bodies to do the reporting, journalism will suffer. That’s because the news-gathering model is still being thought about in the old way, which assumes that the more reporters you have the better reporting you’re able to do. It helps, but that’s not always true.
Instead, media companies and startups should focus on building tools and developing skills that will enable one journalist to do the journalism that it once took five journalists to conduct. In other words, they must innovate the news-gathering process.
The History: Publishing and Innovation
Before the web, it was difficult to produce, distribute, and access information. Publishers thrived since they had a printing press to produce information at scale. Journalists were the professionals trained to gather and report information because it was difficult to get access. As a result, the very first U.S. newspaper, Publick Occurrences , consisted of short, word-of-mouth reports about recent events.
Today, the social web is the new public square. Anyone is able to produce and publish information at the click of a button. There are 150,000 new URLs registered every day. On Facebook, people produce billions of pieces of content daily, 300 million of them are photos. WordPress.com users create roughly 500,000 new blog posts every day. On Tumblr, there have been more than 22 trillion total posts published. And this kind of production is still growing.
To stay competitive, publishers adapted to producing content for the web by integrating their newsrooms. News organizations that once focused on print began to produce interactive graphics, videos, audio slideshows, data-driven applications, games, and more.
They also began using metrics to track performance. Media organizations like the one you’re reading as well as others like The Huffington Post started analyzing audience and news trends, even testing how readers were responding to two different headlines and adapting stories in real time. In the last five years, they also adapted distribution based on where audiences were spending more time: social and mobile. That means they set up social accounts to have town-square like conversations with their audience. They also built apps to distribute content to mobile devices, digital readers, and tablets. We even saw the launch of The Daily , the first-ever tablet-only publication.
But with all this focus on innovating the distribution process, innovation in news gathering, largely, took a backseat. Distribution isn’t necessarily the challenge. News gathering at scale is.
The Opportunities: Distributed Reporting and Investing in Technology
Crowdsourcing and distributed reporting are two great tools news organizations can use to scale and are part of the solution. This means media organizations should think of themselves not only as producers of content but also as platforms for content. One example is CNN. It began bridging the gap between the producer and the citizenry through iReport, which recently re-launched in an effort to become a “social network for news.” Startups like Blottr , a UK-based “people-powered news service,” and Signal, a mobile-only “Instagram of citizen journalism” have also become news platforms for the citizenry. These companies have made it clear that if anyone can report information, why not scale that in a quality way with verification in mind?
A great example of this is The Guardian, which deployed its community to help dig through 458,832 expense documents belonging to Members of Parliament. About half of those documents were examined thanks to the 32,950 people who participated. The Guardian rewarded participants by creating a leader board based on the quantity and quality of their contributions and also highlighted some of the great finds.
But even as we look at ways to innovate the reporting process, newsrooms must also re-prioritize skill sets and equip themselves with hacker journalists. There are already journalists who write scripts to make their reporting more efficient, but journalists with such skills are hard to come by.
Journalism education should emphasize not only digital skills but also offer programs that combine journalism and computer science courses. Two schools doing this well include the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute where a computational and digital journalism concentration is offered. The programs give students computer science skills and teach them quality storytelling and journalistic techniques.
But newsrooms can’t wait for educational institutions to start producing these skill sets. They need to begin recruiting developers and engineers that can build the necessary tools needed to change how we tell stories and make reporting more efficient. That means newsroom cultures and hierarchies will have to change.
Journalists should no longer think of themselves as “newspaper reporters” or a journalist of any specific medium. Instead they should consider themselves multimedia producers equipped to tell a story on multiple platforms. They should also have knowledge of how stories are being consumed. More than anything, a truly “integrated newsroom” will have journalists who build tools that enable them to do reporting at scale and innovate the storytelling process.
So what do these tools look like? Anything that helps journalists do their jobs quicker and smarter. Yes, some things do take a human eye, but what if reporting dashboards could, for example, surface trends in financial documents from a local government budget or find irregularities in expense allocation of a state-funded agency. What if?
Most of the social media dashboards today are built for brands to track conversation around their products, not conversation around potential news events. Ushahidi’s Swiftriver platform aimed to address part of this problem by making sense of real-time data through filtering and verification. So if there is a controversy at a local neighborhood group, a listening dashboard could potentially surface the complaints posted on social accounts.
We’ve already seen attempts at robot journalism that have shown some promise. There may even be things we could learn from companies like Narrative Science, which automatically generate online articles on finance statistics.
What if newsrooms had better tools for analyzing and surfacing trends based on what people are talking about on social platforms? Reuters Social Pulse dashboard is one example of using data to track trends through a new editorial product. This could be taken one step further to create a “listening dashboard” that would enable newsrooms to analyze the plethora of public conversations taking place and surface trends and spikes in conversation around topics to detect relevant news events. Perhaps more importantly, all of this could be done from a mobile device. It’s likely that the next great media company will not only be “mobile first” but it will be mobile only.
The days of the Rolodex are also gone. In fact, the Rolodex has been replaced. Public Insight Network, which is a network of sources for journalists as well as a collaboration tool for news organizations, is a step in the right direction. People who want to be sources are able to opt-in and create a profile on the network. It’s essentially a shared, digital Rolodex.
The Solution: Becoming Builders
If content is king and distribution is queen, where does that leave the news-gathering process? The very reporting process that produces information for content has been deprived of much needed innovation. We need a new approach to how news organizations refocus their innovation on building technology that will equip journalists to do better, smarter, and more efficient reporting.
There is no silver bullet, but it’s clear that the opportunity lies in investing in distributed reporting, a platform for the citizenry to contribute, and tools that will enable skilled journalists to make sense of the vast amounts of information being generated across the web.
How can we revolutionize the news-gathering process? Have your say in the comments.
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