Jun 17

What editors worry about today (notes from Newsgeist)

I went at the weekend to a Google Newsgeist conference in Copenhagen. The discussions are under ‘Chatham House’ rules (views can’t be attributed to individuals) but here are some quick and selective notes on what I learnt as a couple of hundred people from all over Europe (and a few from the US) chewed over journalism, technology and news.

  • Top shock value. When online news platforms try out several headlines on the first version of a story to see which one works best, bots can be used to ‘game’ the results of a survey, distorting the result and delivering – say – a headline more sympathetic to an individual featured in the story. The bots were originally developed to twist these experiments in favour of advertisers, but can just as easily be used to bend headlines in favour of anyone with the clout or expertise to deploy bots. If news sites aren’t savvy and careful.
  • Man with numbers. An expert on news consumption in Facebook made this simple point. The news people are shown in Facebook is more balanced than a lot of people imagine. What is unbalanced is people’s consumption of the stories they are shown. They simply ignore what they think they aren’t going to like.
  • Big underlying fear. No one quite knows what to do about this, but they’re afraid of it. Societies which can’t agree about what might or might not be true are at risk. That isn’t the same as societies disagreeing about stuff: democracies do that ceaselessly. But if a society is fundamentally divided on how to establish (with evidence) truth and how to recognise that, trouble follows. America in the age of Trump was on everyone’s mind. ‘We are losing our sense of collective reality,’ as one participant put it. (My views on this in a review of Cass Sunstein’s book #Republic are here). No consensus on the causes: many people think social networks cause or aggravate the problem, others think it has deeper causes such as social, demographic and geographic segregation.
  • New trend. Journalists, and particularly those with technology backgrounds, are beginning to think harder about how algorithms surface information and the long-term, accumulative implications. Those algorithms which lean particularly heavily on emotion (Facebook) were contrasted with Upday (a news app produced by Samsung and Axel Springer), whose designers claim to be balancing the emotion with some reason and use of public interest criteria. Are we witnessing the first attempts to design an editor-in-chief with machine learning?
  • To be continued. Online makes the disguise of information easier, cheaper and almost frictionless. Huge debunking and factchecking efforts have responded to new fears about ‘fake news’. The Google people present agreed that more technical inquiry was needed into whether there might be better ways to ‘hard code’, label or tag information to make it harder to distort or misuse. I talked about the INJECT project (with which I’m involved) which aims to produce software which, among other things, will help journalists add references and backing to what they write with minimum hassle.

Aug 13

The Washington Post’s new owner Jeff Bezos isn’t just rich – he experiments, he invents

http://www-tc.pbs.org/idealab/wp-content/uploads/sites/9/2013/08/Jeff_Bezos_iconic_laugh.jpgThe sale of the Washington Post for $250m to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos may have taken Washington DC unawares – newspaper people are good at being secretive when it matters – but nothing in this emblematic story is surprising. There’s every chance that this is a good development. Here’s why.

The Post, owned until Monday by three generations of the Graham family, had been struggling as a media business and had sought a way out by buying into businesses which looked likely to help keep the company afloat. It had become an electronic education corporation with a famous newspaper as an appendage. Last month, the company bought a furnace business; it stopped describing itself as a media business some time ago.

Editorially, the paper still holds the attention of Washington’s older movers and shakers; its reporting can still set the capital’s agenda. But advertising revenue had fallen steadily, partly because it was not recruiting younger readers in sufficient numbers. Its editorial personality has lost much of its self-confidence.

I’ve written a book (published next month) which tries to explain exactly how this kind of crisis has come about in the European and American print news media. I argue that despite the threnodies for mainstream newspapers in difficulty and decline, the future prospects for journalism are good. As it happens, the book’s graph showing how online advertising income has not compensated for the loss of print ad income uses the example of the Washington Post.

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Jun 10

Men nervous about spaghetti

Addressed three hundred German news publishers and editors this morning at the “Zeitung Online 2010” conference in Dusseldorf and spoke on themes that I’m almost getting bored of hearing myself say. (Presentation slides here).

At the start of the huge changes driven by digital technology…Companies that expect uncertainty and surprise will fare better…experiment frequently, fail often…don’t assume that internet advertising will match or replicate print income…the iPad probably isn’t the white knight that you hope it is…your once captive audience has escaped. OK the bit about the iPad is a recent addition, but the rest isn’t new and not even completely original (even if true and important). I mentioned the importance of throwing a lot of spaghetti at the wall.

It wasn’t that the audience was shocked or surprised by any of this. The reaction of the room was more sullen disappointment. Before I spoke they had been treated to a snazzy presentation from a designer, Lukas Kirchner, happily plunging into iPad design projects. Kirchner’s slides included a set of five American magazines on the iPad and the homepages looked remarkably like the magazine covers in print. This sight was greeted with an almost audible sigh of relief and happiness. “At last,”  that sound seemed to say, “along comes a device which makes the future look like the past.” German publishers – and they’re hardly alone – can register with their heads talks which stress unpredictability of the changes driven by new media; but in their hearts they yearn for the familiar.

I told them that the first version of the iPad doesn’t have the openess and connectedness of the iPhone (bookmarking, linking and blogging all made difficult) and that this might turn out to be a problem, however popular the device was to begin with. I wasn’t making much impact.

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