How technology is going to change journalism: precis of a talk to the NUJ

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.

POSITIVE:

  • 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.

NEGATIVE:

  • 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.

5 Comments

  1. Too late to avert the risk of being known as a pedantic bore, so I might as well say that the Indie did in fact have a functioning external email system before it moved to Canary Wharf, when the new management promptly broke it. I don’t know when the memo first came round — my guess would be ’88 or ’89 — but the IT department rigged up a bridge between the internal atex messaging system and the outside world. External addresses were of the form browna.atex@independent.co.uk but you had to apply for them and few people did. I don’t suppose wsmith.atex@independent.co.uk (which would have been strobes) ever worked.

    I used the system quite a lot as a way of sending myself copy to work on at home. I just did a search for “atex” on my hard disk and found a message sent me by Angela Lambert in 1994:

    Here’s the one I couldn’t remember:
    THE AUTHOR TO HIS WIFE, OF A WOMAN`S ELOQUENCE

    My Mall, I mark that when you mean to prove me
    To buy a velvet gown or some rich border,
    Thou call’st me good sweetheart; thou swear’st to love me,
    Thy locks, thy lips, thy looks, speak all in order,
    Thou think’st, and right thou think’st, that these do move me
    But shall I tell thee what most thy suit advances?
    Thy fair smooth words? No, no, thy fair smooth haunches.

    The computer page had its own address by 1992, though I can’t remember it. There are a couple of contributors to the old page who read this; one of them might. But when Tom Wilkie and I wrote a long memo detailing how the page would change when we moved to the Dark Tower in 1994, one of the items was a request that other bits of the paper get their own address.

    A quote from that memo:

    “At present the Friday page is the only part of the paper that has an email address which is easily accessible to the outside world. The most frequent request in the letters we get that way is for an email address for letters to the editor. I know there are technical difficulties with setting this up for so long as we stay on the atex system. But they are not insurmountable. I think that as part of a general statement of intent we should stick email addresses on the bottom of the letters page as well as on the Frontiers section when it starts. This would of course require liaison with operations. I also propose, as an experiment, to print the email addresses of authors at the bottom of their pieces, as is already done on some American papers.”

    And now I must go and deliver daughter to her horsey friends.

  2. Why not write it up for the science reporter?

  3. Not sure I agree.

    I wasn’t really a journalist much before email became available, and it makes a bigger difference to me than mobile phones. The Internet has vastly lowered my costs, made people far more available, and made it easy to prepare the night before for the day after. Mobile phones are *raising* my costs again because it costs so much more to call them and often they are the only numbers people publish now.

    As for your comments about journalism, it seems to me the biggest issue wrt the Net is the free competition it gives to paid-for journalism, plus the ability of commercial publishers in a high-cost location to outsource content and copy editing to lower-cost ones (books are typeset in India; British reporters are grateful to get even low US rates…). The concentration of media into a few corporate hands seems to me a bigger issue than anything in terms of staffing levels and choice of content.

    As for the Google comment, since news is indexed in reverse chronological order, seems to me people are rewarded for a) getting the story late but right, and b) for updating it frequently. I don’t see that as not rewarding good journalism.

    wg

  4. Interesting points, Wendy, but don’t you think that it might be that this benefits you because you’re a tech journalist, mainly?

    For journalism (as I define it, as in “finding out stuff that isn’t widely known”), I think that the fact that lots of information is out there doesn’t make the task of finding stuff out any easier. You just get more points to triangulate in on what’s correct.

    And for your comment on my Google comment, I’d only ask this pair of questions:
    1) which journalists broke the Watergate story, and in which publication?
    2) which journalist broke the Abu Ghraib story, and in which publication?

    The difference in whether you know the answer isn’t caused by Google News, but it’s entirely typical of how media works now: that everything goes into the hopper, source forgotten.

  5. I broadly agree but your example of travellers/gypsies as potentially marginalised by technology is misplaced – 3G will bring them into the fold for the first time.
    And yes, they can afford mobile phones. How do you think they organise such slick dawn raids on vacant camping sites?
    I am seriously considering jacking in the house and going boating. Mobile comms have finally made the gypsy life financially possible.
    Chris

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