How the Crowd and Automation Are Shaping Journalism
There are few industries that have been impacted as heavily by the digital revolution as the print media business. As consumers migrated online for content that was notoriously difficult to monetize, the industry has tossed around various business models to try and survive.
Whilst the business model for the industry remains in a state of flux, the very process of creating the content is also being disrupted.
It might be imagined that journalism is just the sort of complex and nuanced task that would render people immune from automation, but software such as Wordsmith is nonetheless making inroads into the profession.
The automated newsroom
Automation has been creeping into newsrooms for a while now, with algorithms utilized to help reporters at some of the biggest publications online and in print.
Wordsmith operates according to the rules given it regarding tone of voice and the data fed it to populate each story.
The software is currently used to produce around 3,500 stories per quarter for the Associated Press, with the number growing at quite a pace. The trend is fed largely by the level of data available to feed such algorithms, but also the growing importance of publishing quickly.
Suffice to say, the algorithmic reporter requires a substantial amount of training and guidance before it can produce content of even basic quality, but the results shown by the AP suggest that the effort can pay off.
They do represent a different challenge for editors, with most of the effort going into training the system beforehand rather than correcting errors afterwards (although that does happen too of course).
In attempts to ensure the automated stories are error free however, they can often err somewhat towards the mundane side of things, which suggests there is still some way to go before they takeover the newsroom en masse.
Whilst automated journalism appears to be gaining a degree of acceptance in professional newsrooms, the relationship with citizen journalists tends to be much more tense.
I wrote earlier this year about a paper from the Tow Center that explored the Twitter habits of professional and citizen journalists.
When the data was analyzed, it emerged that the journalists retweeted fellow journalists 63 percent of the time, compared to just 10 percent of retweets being of content from digital journalists. What's more, even aside from the retweets, most of the communication on Twitter was confined either to fellow journalists from the same newspaper or peers from similarly prestigious publications.
What makes this interesting is that a second study, from a Spanish led team, found that the mainstream news is more likely to take its cue from what is trending on Twitter than the other way round.
So professional journalists are following what the 'citizens' are saying, even if they don't appear to be acknowledging it.
Here comes the crowd
Whilst we've seen sites like the Huffington Post and Forbes explore citizen based newsrooms, they still have a fairly strict editorial policy that ensures that only a select few are given access to the platform.
A more open approach to things is typified by Blasting News, a news platform with 400,000 citizen journalists enrolled from around the world. The site has grown over the past few years to attract 23 million readers per month, which would place it not 'that' far behind the likes of the BBC and LA Times.
"Blasting News aims to enable more and more people around the world to report news important to them and earn for their content. We've already reached more than 20 million readers since launching 2 years ago thanks to our growing community of reporters. Most of our readers are millennials, who engage with news content in a different way to other generations. They find news on social media, share their favourite articles and get involved in online discussions much more. In our short existence, we've gained a community of 420,000 contributors, who have uncovered major political stories, produced viral news, and earned thousands for their contributions,"Sophia Matveeva from Blasting News told me recently.
Overcoming the pothole paradox
Such a broad pool of journalists can help to overcome what Steven Johnson refers to as the pothole paradox. This refers to news that is very relevant to a small number of people, but completely irrelevant to most.
For instance, when a pothole in my street gets fixed, it's important news to me and other residents of my street, but irrelevant to most people in my part of town, much less those from the rest of the city or country.
Traditionally, mainstream news has failed to cover this kind of news at all, as they have a clear prerogative to cover news that matters to the mainstream.
A combination of the two
At the forefront of both the automation and citizen journalism movement is the independent newsroom ProPublica. They utilized automated journalism as part of their Opportunity Gap project, which looked at which states are (or aren't) providing low-income high school students with the coursework they need to attend and succeed in college.
They are also heavy users of crowdsourcing via their Get Involved platform that encourages readers to get involved on specific issues. Many of these are long-term projects that are aimed very much at the investigative end of the spectrum.
Of course, there is no guarantee of success, as shown by the unfortunate demise of the crowdfunded journalism venture Contributora recently. Contributoria provided a platform for freelance writers to pitch, collaborate on and publish articles, and receive payment for their work, and their closure should prove as a reminder of the risks involved.
The likes of ProPublica and BlastingNews seem to be in good health however. ProPublica recently secured $2.2 million in funding from the Knight Foundation to help power the sites Crowd-Powered News Network.
It's a fascinating time to work in the news business, and I'm sure these trends will develop over the coming years in new and innovative directions.
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