(This post first appeared at Nieman Journalism Lab)
The traditional goal of news is to say what just happened. That’s sort of what “news” means. But there are many more types of nonfiction information services, and many possibilities that few have yet explored.
I want to take two steps back from journalism, to see where it fits in the broader information landscape and try to imagine new things. First is the shift from content to product. A news source is more than the stories it produces; it’s also the process of deciding what to cover, the delivery system, and the user experience. Second, we need to include algorithms. Every time programmers write code to handle information, they are making editorial choices.
Imagine all the wildly different services you could deliver with a building full of writers and developers. It’s a category I’ve started calling editorial products.
In this frame, journalism is just one part of a broader information ecosystem that includes everything from wire services to Wikipedia to search engines. All of these products serve needs for factual information, and they all use some combination of professionals, participants, and software to produce and deliver it to users — the reporter plus the crowd and the algorithm. Here are six editorial products that journalists and others already produce, and six more that they could.
Some editorial products we already have
Record what just happened. This is the classic role of journalism. This is what the city reporter rushes out to cover, what the wire service specializes in, the role that a journalist plays in every breaking story. It’s the fundamental factual basis on which everything else depends. And my sense is we usually have enough of this. I know that people will disagree, saying there is much that is important that is not covered, but I want to distinguish between reporting a story and drawing attention to it. The next time you feel a story is being ignored, try doing a search in Google News. Almost always I find that some mainstream organization has covered it, even if it was never front-page. This is basic and valuable.
Locate pre-existing information. This is a traditional role of researchers and librarians, and now search engines. Even when the product is powered entirely by software, this is most definitely an editorial role, because the creation of an information retrieval algorithm requires careful judgement about what a “good” result is. All search engines are editorial products, as Google’s Matt Cutts has said: “In some sense when people come to Google, that’s exactly what they’re asking for — our editorial judgment. They’re expressed via algorithms.”
Filter the information tsunami. This is the act which produces your trusted information feed, whether that’s Facebook’s News Feed or Politico’s morning emails or Google News. It’s here that we can most productively complain that something “wasn’t covered.” Filtering depends upon aggregation and curation, because no one organization can produce original reporting on everything. Most filtering products also lean heavily on software, because human effort can’t match the scope of a web crawler, nor can a human editor prepare personalized headlines for millions of users. As with search engines, information filtering algorithms are both mathematical and editorial objects, and the best products use clever combinations of machines and people.
Give me background on this topic. This is also about locating pre-existing information, but in a summary or tutorial form. Because there are more complex issues than anyone can follow, most news is going to be about things that you don’t know much about. This has been called the context problem for news, and there have been many experiments in solving it. There are now entire sites devoted to explanatory journalism, such as Vox, but the 800-pound gorilla of getting up to speed is Wikipedia. So far, no other product can match Wikipedia’s scope, cost of production, or authority.
Expose wrongdoing. This is the classic role of investigative journalism, which fits within a whole ecosystem of accountability. Every government transparency initiative and every open data nonprofit aspires to support this goal, but transparency is not enough. Democracy needs people who are committed to exposing corruption, crime, and abuse. Sometimes this requires inside sources and secret documents, but accountability can also be about drawing attention to little-noted facts. But it is always about scandal, what has been called “the journalism of outrage.” This makes it powerless in the face of huge systemic issues without a clear locus of wrongdoing. Investigative journalism is vital, but only one part of the broad intersection between information and power.
Debunk rumors and lies. In this fairly new category, we have products like Politifact, which checks what politicians say, Emergent.info, which tracks the spread of rumors, and the venerable Snopes. It’s a little strange to me that the news media of old weren’t much into debunking, but I guess they thought “publish only true things” was sufficient. Clearly, truth-testing has since become a valuable public service, and journalists have learned to pay more attention.
Some editorial products that don’t exist yet
What can I do about it? More and more, this is the only beat I care to cover. Accurate news is essential to know the world, but reports of what just happened do not tell you what can be done about it, at a personal level. I don’t believe that citizens have become apathetic; I believe we are overwhelmed in the face of large and complex problems where it is hard to know where to start. We already know that stories that include solutions are more engaging. The main problem is one of plausible effectiveness: If you have ten dollars or ten hours to donate, where should you put your resources? Not every problem can be helped by large numbers of small actions — but some can. You could build a whole product around the question of what the reader could do.
A moderated place for difficult discussions. Traditionally, journalism has tried to present an objective truth that would be seen as legitimate by everyone. I’m not convinced that truth always works this way, and I’m sure that no institution today has this sort of argument-settling authority. But I do see a need for unifying narratives. Americans are more polarized than they’ve been in decades, and we fight online about everything from catcalls to tax rates. Perhaps there is a need for a safe place to talk, to know the other, with real human moderators gently tending the discussion and discouraging the trolls. When everyone can talk, the public sphere needs fewer authorities and more moderators. To me, seems a natural role for journalism.
Personalized news that isn’t sort of terrible. It seems obvious that different people need different news (if I do say so myself) and this requires algorithmic recommendation to scale, but the results have often been unimpressive — as anyone who has complained about the Facebook News Feed knows. I’ve spent a lot of time with recommendation algorithms and I’ve come to believe that this is fundamentally a user interface design challenge: How do you tell the computer what you want to see? Optimizing for clicks and likes inevitably degenerates into clickbait and likebait. Other systems require you to choose subjects in advance or people to follow, but none of these is really satisfying, and I still don’t have a “mute” button to tune out Kim Kardashian. I’m holding my breath for an interaction design breakthrough, some elegant way to create the perfect personal channel.
The online town hall. Democracy is supposed to be participatory; voting is not enough, but there is no scalable communication channel between citizens and government. So how does your voice get heard? And how do you hear the voices of other people — and how does a civil servant make sense of any of this deluge? There’s a hard problem here: We don’t have good models for a “conversation” that might include millions of people. I’m imagining something like a cross between Reddit and civic-listening platform PopVox. This too would require thoughtful moderation.
Systematic government coverage. Journalism has long looked for waste and corruption. But how many stories do you read about the Bureau of Land Management? Or the Office of Thrift Supervision, which should have been monitoring the financial industry before the crash? Sometimes it seems like journalists pull their subjects out of a hat. If we’re serious about the notion of an independent check on government, we need to get systematic about it. No one reports department by department, bureau by bureau, with robot reporters scrutinizing every single open data feed. Sound boring? It might be. But maybe that just means current accountability journalism is badly skewed by the demands of entertainment.
Choose-your-own-adventure reporting. Story creation could be interactive. There have been crowdfunding platforms such as Spot.us and Beacon, but nothing that operates on quite the level of granularity and speed envisioned by Jay Rosen’s explainthis.org, where users type in questions for journalists to answer. There are thousands of variations on the idea of having the users direct the reporting, everything from demand-driven production to a quiz after each story that says, “what should we report on next?” The point is to put journalists and users in an interactive loop. Good reporters listen anyway, but I want something stronger, a sort of contract with the audience where they know exactly how to be heard. For example: “Our reporter will investigate the top-voted question each week.”
What’s editorial, anyway?
I’ve used the word “editorial” to sidestep discussion of what “news” or “journalism” is. To ask that question misses the point of what it does. And there has been a strange lack of innovation here. Silicon Valley has never been afraid of wild ideas, but the tech world is allergic to any service which requires a lot of humans to deliver. That doesn’t scale, or so the thinking goes. Meanwhile, the journalism world has evolved and finally embraced software and new story forms. Yet the espoused goals of journalism — the fundamental services that journalists provide — seem virtually unchanged. That’s a pity, because there are so many different, useful things you can do by applying humans plus machines to nonfiction information production. We’ve barely scratched the surface.