Earlier this month, folks from Google invited me along with Kara Swisher and Audrey Cooper for a conversation about the future of news. Towards the end of the conversation, we were asked what Google could do in order to help the news and media industry. Obviously, we joked about buying the New York Times, but when asked, I pointed out that Google is good at one thing — software — and instead of trying to do crazy things, why not build tools that help the news ecosystem? Why not create tools that help data novices make sense of information? Or how about a smarter, simpler, and more nimble analytics tool just for reporters? (Or simply buy Chartbeat!) I forgot to mention one tool that they could build in their sleep, and in the process help not only save many reporter hours but make the news better, smarter, and more contextual.
That tool is search — not the Google search as we know it, but a different version of Google-powered search tool that allows reporters to see in real-time past stories from across the web. That’s not all — the search tool would also provide contextual information about various topics, whether through Wikipedia or some private archive like Lexis-Nexis. There is a crying need for this tool, especially in today’s hyperactive media environment.
One of the great things about the web is that it has totally and completely exploded the notion of traditional journalism. It has allowed fresh air into newsrooms and basically allowed us to reinvent what it means to be in the media business. Listicles are what made Cosmopolitan, big, fat and happy and they’ve helped Buzzfeed attain a valuation of $850 million. Data-driven feature pieces (they used to call them infographics) were commonplace in technology and business magazines like Wired and Red Herring.
Today they are a category of their own, thanks to the rise of The Upshot and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight. The Wirecutter has successfully reinvented the “shopper” concept that was so common during the heydays of the PC business and in the process discovered a business model that puts readers first. And the beat goes on. I absolutely love the media experiments that are trying to get a slice of our attention. From Beacon Reader to Byliner (sadly dead), everything is worth trying because we are going through a transition and are in a state of flux.
Of course, like all industries in flux, media is attracting newer, younger, creative minds who are not weighed down by the legacy and are natively proficient in using the tools of today . The new generation thinks different and makes a different media — just look at Vice. However, there is a one challenge that most in media, especially the newcomers have, and that is the historical understanding/context of the news events and industries they cover.
The newsrooms of today aren’t as nurturing an environment and it is hard for young reporters to get the mentorship we got. Similarly, with fewer (and much younger) editors, you don’t have access to that accumulated knowledge. Many of the senior writers are either retired, or pushed out or have moved on to other things. And with it, there is a loss of that historical context. I don’t say this to bemoan the present or talk about the good old days — far from it. It is just to provide some color to the reality of the modern media world.
The good news is that all the information a reporter needs is out there. Over the past twenty five years, society has put up a lot of information on the web and the only challenge that remains is our ability to find it. And this where the proposed Google search tool — with a special focus on journalistic/news needs — comes into play.
To illustrate why it could be useful, I will use the story of “This” a link sharing social platform that got a glowing writeup from the Nieman Journalism Labs. Missing from the piece was any mention of Last Great Thing, a similar idea that got a write-up from a site called — wait a minute — Nieman Journalism Labs. (When a stream is just a trickle: Last Great Thing is one item a day, no archives http://bit.ly/XFH0ue) Do I think the reporter forgot this intentionally? I don’t think so. It was a case of “I didn’t know.”
Let me give you one simple example of the newsflow in today’s turbocharged environment. A reporter gets an alert for a story from three or four sources — public relations pitches, pr-focused new wires, Twitter, or from their sources directly. When that news flows into their inbox (usually via email), they go on alert and start thinking about the angle and how many words they can do and how fast. The faster you get to the web, the better the chances for a reporter to get attention. Most normally just do some basic report and post it to the web and add details later. It is not very different from the newswire reporting I used to do back in the day.
There are times when reporters have to do longer pieces — profiles on companies, people or cover news events. In this case, you do research but the effectiveness of research is limited by the questions you ask, whether it is sources or the databases. You don’t always ask the right question when you are on deadline — yes even longer pieces are written these days with a proverbial gun to the head — and as a result you miss the critical nuances in shaping the final piece.
The internet has done one thing: it has made speed one of the key factors in how information is produced and consumed. As networks have become faster and more prevalent, the news and our expectation of the information has become faster. I think the challenge is that our information-gathering tools are not up to the snuff — or up to speed I should say.
I don’t expect media companies — unless they are the new breed of companies like Buzzfeed and Vox Media — to be able to do this. They failed in coming up with software that helped them publish to the web and it wasn’t till more open source products such as WordPress came to the fore that media companies saw the light. The tools to help augment the information gathering process will also come from open source and the Internet world. New language-oriented libraries like Hemingway can provide some grammatical and composition help, for instance.
Software & Internet-centric companies like Google should be more effective than others. Others like Automattic/WordPress should be thinking about this long and hard, now that they have embraced the idea of being the content-management system or “CMS” of the web. That said, startups shouldn’t bother, because let’s face it, the media industry is not known for being big spenders on any kind of technology.
Tools, not talk
If technology has upended the media ecosystem, then it should also be the solution for that ecosystem to adapt to the new hyper-speed reality of news and information. What we need is a set of tools that basically are a way to help the information-gathering process at network speed. Instead of reporters asking questions — if you don’t have historical context you can’t really ask some key questions — we need tools that help augment the process.
Whether it is a tech tool that helps sift for signals in the increasing amount of transmissions on the social web or a tool that provides context serendipitously or simply an app that helps identify copyright infringements or plagiarism — in my view, media people need tools that basically help them produce the best possible reports.
Now a good context+search tool (a chrome extension would be perfect) should have helped surface the old story about Last Great Thing, and thus given the reporter a chance to be either more skeptical or give her the option to flesh out the story further by adding more details. The extension wouldn’t be passive — it would essentially watch what a reporter is writing via a WordPress plugin or through some arrangement between Google and WordPress — and constantly surface matching “contextual” stories from archives and around the web. For example, it could run as a simple sidebar and it should have capabilities for reporters to customize their information sources.
The biggest challenge of modern web-based publishing is the incessant speed of the publishing cycle. You have much less time as a reporter/writer to turn around the copy for the Internet — and there is very little time for reporters to do search. A tool like that would make searching for contextual information an inline activity. My point here is that as the internet changes journalism — increasing its metabolism and redefining its core components — it is time to develop a set of tools that help the modern (and future generations) of media people do their job better.
After all, as Mathew Ingram so aptly puts it — journalism is doing just fine and will continue do just fine, regardless of the business models.