Last week I gave a talk at the National Union of Journalists ADM (Annual Delegate Meeting; basically its annual shindig) about how we should expect technology to affect journalism in the next few years.
So here are the edited highlights. (Lowlights left out.)
First, what’s the technology that’s brought the biggest benefits to journalists in the past 20 years? (Have a think. My answer at the end.) And what’s the technology that’s brought the biggest disbenefit to journalists in the same period? (My answer at the end.)
What we can see as a general trend is that there are many, many more sources than there were. When I started at The Independent ten years ago in May 1995, the main sources of regular information were (in order of ascending importance) paper press releases, faxes, other newspapers, news wires, and the bloody Today program, which always seemed to set the agenda for the day.
By the time I left, in December 2004, the sources were: 2 billion web sites, 200 emails per day, other newspapers, news wires and the sodding Today program. (I haven’t mentioned personal contacts in either list because I’m talking about regular sources – the stuff that newsdesks and hard-press daily hacks need to feed the tyrannical monster of the empty page.)
In that time things moved from my being one of only two email addresses on the newsroom floor (along with letters), having to use a dialup modem to collect my mail and thus blocking my phone, to one where everyone had broadband connections right on their desk.
So the problem in those ten years moved from a position where there was no scarcity of information, to one with an absolute overload of information. What we need are filtering tools. Happily, there’s a fabulous one around: Google.
Yes, Google is a filter. Most people call it a “search” engine, but it really filters down and finds what you ask it to find. It is the greatest filtering product ever in the face of an exponential growth of bitty data that might or might not make stories. Five years ago, few newspaper journalists had come across it. Now, it’s their first port of call in “researching” a story.
Finding the best filters, and the best ways of filtering, will be a real challenge for the future. That, and finding authoritative, trustworthy voices. I’ve written before on this site about the problems of people being misled by websites into thinking they’re news (the Cornwall “surf rage” story, for example). The more recent example of the Terri Schiavo case was the same problem writ even larger.
Still, filtering will bring relief from the email overload that so many journalists suffer from. Technologies like RSS will be taken up much faster – I pay more attention to my RSS feeds because they’re sources I’ve chosen, rather than the emails I get from PR companies, which have targeted me as a “sink” of information.
We’ll get search engines not just for text, but also TV, web images and radio. (blinkx is doing well on the TV-indexing front, sure to follow with radio, using voice recognition.)
We’ll get more outlets. But they’ll offer bite-sized information, chunk-ettes of “news” that isn’t really, and that bodes badly for trying to explain problems which are large and complicated, such as (in ascending order) why Rover couldn’t sell cars, why politics fails to change “government”, and how we can truly tackle global warming.
On the negative side, the rise of computing has also seen plagiarism rise, and more pressure just to get the story out becaue someone else has it. This has led (as I’ve written about) to the situation where on Google News, the site or publication that gets a scoop is the bottom of the long list of those reporting it, while those which are just following on, quite probably not adding anything to the story, are at the top because they’re more recently updated. That works against good journalism.
To summarise, technology brings both negative and positives. Here’s my list of both.
- Better communications everywhere, with better access to filtered information – your contacts list, your stories, your contacts, details of news you need to know – everywhere
- It’ll be easier to find people affected by various issues, because they’ll put up web pages about them
- There’s be greater ‘freedom’ of information, because with so many sources we will be able to triangulate on what’s missing from public pronoucements. The investigative journalist Duncan Campbell was able, in the 1980s, to deduce the existence of the Zircon spy satelllite by studying the minute textual differences between the press releases put out by a defence company, and the Ministry of Defence over the same contract. Similar methods will become automated.
- There’ll be more media outlets, and that must mean more jobs for journalists. After all, they’ve tried it with monkeys and it doesn’t work.
- There will be downward pressure on staffing numbers, skills (“just cut and paste it from the other outlet”) and time to research stories properly.
- There will be downward pressure on getting scoops and facts; instead spin will be preferred (you can spin a story about the same facts any old way; just look at the Daily Mail). As for fact-checking, well, if Google has 200 sites which says orange is blue, it must be, right?
- The marginalised communities, such as gypsies/Travellers, who don’t have access to the information corral, will be harder to find and give a voice to.
Oh, you were wondering about the best and worst things to come to journalism.
Best: the mobile phone. Means that you’re able to contact people no matter where they are, what time it is, etc. And you can always phone your copy back to the office.
Worst: the computer. Ironic, I agree. But it’s made it possible for huge amounts of plagiarism (aka ripping off copy) to go on, and also for bean-counters to squeeze the number of journalists down because you can fill a paper with stuff copied off the wires and “tickled” a little if you like. Sure, it’s been a boon for searching and so on, but I managed to crank out thousands of words, and do some proper investigative stuff, when all I had was a typewriter and a telephone – back in the 1980s, when I really had just begun. And, most marvellous irony of all, that was when I worked for a magazine called Computer Weekly. Even when I left in 1989 they were still using typewriters.
As always, your comments, emails welcome of course (as long as they’re on-topic). Could I give this talk again? Hell, yes.