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If nothing is new under the sun, then why bother with today’s news?


Some thoughts on the future of journalistic “content”—for a related project, check out my paywalls.

What is the future (if any) of professional, unfree, editor-refereed journalism? Setting aside for a second the usual economic arguments (why pay for something you can get for free, why wait for something you can get immediately, why all the news that’s fit to print when all the news fits and print is an afterthought), how might journalism turn all the granular data and digital resources now at its disposal into something worth paying for?

What brought all this about was a recent trip to Asia where I had at the disposal of my itchy remote finger 24-hour news from all over the world. I know it’s hardly news, but seeing sensationalist CNN next to the more staid but still alarmingly populist BBC World next to the multiple bland iterations of China’s CCTV really brought home the extent to which “news” stories are a manufactured product that respond in near real time to audience demand (for entertainment in the West, in the East, for “reassurance”). The result in the West is hours of programming devoted to the information equivalent of dandruff: book burners and rednecks and science deniers and slutty heiresses and other subjects you’d think should be relegated to dark corners of the web but instead are broadcast globally and legitimized to an extent that would have appalled even the editors of the National Enqurirer just twenty years ago. In addition to being meaningless and legitimizing questionable subjects, China’s crop yield statistics and endless political meetings and amazing traffic accidents are also mind-numbingly dull.

When left to free market forces, the news tends towards tabloidization. And this is not just a television news phenomenon. Note the Huffington Post‘s descent into celebrity gossip and Murdochian headline hyperbole. But here’s the really interesting thing about online media—while TV and print rely on largely fuzzy audience data and asynchronous adjustments and tweaks, online media can in real time and with absolute resolution determine what stories are getting clicked, linked, emailed, and tweeted and by whom, and rearrange themselves accordingly, minute to minute. News becomes a democracy where every mouse gets a vote. It’s hard to imagine that editors aren’t letting these statistics at least in part influence the types of stories they’re running. Even the august editors of the New York Times must be paying attention to the most emailed articles—that’s ad revenue.

That’s a grim prospect. Many serious newspapers agree and have either erected or are planning paywalls. But I’m still not convinced that asking people to pay for online news will end up netting any real gains for them. The subscription money they collect might equal the advertising money they scare away, but becoming unsearchable and unindexable will drive away good writers. The other possibility, the one the New York Times is considering, is allowing paywalled sites to appear in search results. That seems like a recipe for disaster, as it will either encourage people to rely on Google News or some new aggregating web service. So what can the future possibly hold? Maybe that question contains the answer.


recorded future screenshotRecorded Future is a startup that searches for trends and patterns in current events that may be imperceptible to readers but are obvious to computers. They’ve figured out a way to algorithmically parse the nature of news stories and rank their import, essentially developing a language that abstracts specific events into generic types. Their subscribers and investors, who include Google and many government agencies and Wall Street organizations of differing levels of nefariousness, can then look for patterns and trends that may indicate an oncoming event. It’s scenario planning with a statistical backbone. The military has been obsessed with the idea of reducing battles to a series of determining factors and then computationally predicting their outcomes for years.

With computers reaching unprecedented speeds and processor power,muckrack.com screenshot it’s now conceivable to model incredibly complex systems. Add to that the ability to teach computers to interpret texts and classify their contents, and you approach a not too distant future in which people know the probable news weeks in advance! This isn’t a crazy idea, it’s already happening on a very small scale. Take for instance Muckrack.com, a site that aggregates journalists’ tweets, in a sense getting the news as it is made but before it goes to press. If you want to know what a particular columnist is going to be writing about, then pay attention to the sorts of leads he’s soliciting.

Imagine for a second what the world would be like if the paid-for, professional news were not a running account of what had happened, but a forecast of what was probably going to happen.

In such a future, a news organization’s most valuable asset is its archives. Years ago, the New York Times tried and failed to charge for access to its archives, probably because that was too literal an approach, akin to charging for a collection of reporters’ notes rather than a finished newspaper. It’s the interpretation that adds value. You could have a news source whose focus was on historically significant news, determined a priori. Based on comparisons to older news, computer-aided journalists would be able to identify the beginnings of revolutions years before they occurred, distinguish hit movies from duds as soon as they were greenlighted, and weigh in on the importance of leaders on the eve of their election. Today’s stories could be chosen on the basis of their future historical importance given their similarities to past stories. There are already a bunch of services that find connections in news stories. Though they’re still in an incipient phase, combined with a computable semiotics of events, it’s easy to imagine how they might lend themselves to untangling the web of historical cause and effect to put it at the service of the future.

You could similarly imagine a news source that focused on unprecedented news, on stories that fit no known patterns, really pushing their newness. The converse, a source devoted to describing just how old each piece of news really is by digging up an exact analogue from the historical record, might keep cynics reading even after the paper they swore they’d never abandon is replaced by screens or projection or some other digital means of delivery.

In either case, the news again becomes worth money, as the information it provides is “actionable,” and the role of the professional, paid journalist is preserved, though transformed. Pattern matching is the province of computers, but I suspect the human mind will always retain its primacy in the fields of analogy and metaphor. Finding the future in the past is a poetic task and having a class of highly visible, professional introspectors of a poetic bent might not be a bad idea—regardless of the possible future significance of any of the other ideas I’ve expressed.


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