Una Marson (centre), George Orwell (standing) and TS Eliot (seated).
It is easy to assume that the future of news will be inevitably technical. That assumption is dangerous.
Assumptions are like algorithms in our brains. They’re clearly useful for speeding up how we process information, but they also come with huge risks because they can exclude important knowledge that is different, rare, subtle or new. We all use assumptions, and journalism as a community of practice also uses assumptions. Some of those assumptions are about how we can innovate with journalism.
A common assumption is that journalists can’t fully participate in technical innovation in journalism. The revolution in communications that has disrupted news so thoroughly has been triggered and powered by technology, and its greatest beneficiaries have been people and companies whose skills are primarily technical. ‘Digital’ and ‘technical’ are seen as somewhat synonymous, and we hear a lot more about journalists learning to code than we do about engineers learning to write stories. It is easy to assume that the future of news will be inevitably technical.
That assumption is dangerous. Technical innovations like news bots and automation offer tangible ‘newness’, and their novelty naturally generates surprise and excitement. But meaningful innovation in journalism must produce news products that are genuinely useful to real people, month after month and year after year. To do that they must be rooted in something familiar and human.
“Our work on news bots, natural language generation, voice interfaces, structured journalism and a host of other technologies must be as editorial as it is technical.”
That ‘human element’ is hard to articulate, harder to define and impossible to capture as data or code, but it is critically important nonetheless. A primary challenge in innovating for journalism is finding ways to bring this essential characteristic into the digitally-native news products that we will need to sustain newsrooms in the digital communication environment.
Here at News Labs we are putting more emphasis on exploring editorial innovation for news products. This doesn’t mean that we are turning away from technical innovation, or that we’ve lost sight of the competitive realities of a communications environment in which everyone walks around with a broadcast studio and a printing press in their pocket. Instead it means that we recognise that our work on news bots, natural language generation, voice interfaces, structured journalism and a host of other technologies must be as editorial as it is technical. It requires radically new ways of reporting, analysing, writing, editing and producing — editorial innovations that will feel as deeply challenging to journalists as cutting-edge technical research feels to technologists.
Let’s look at an example. News bots use ‘dialog trees’ or similar structures to facilitate interaction with their audience. These are assembled from elements created with natural language — blocks of text that are very unlike the articles or scripts that most journalists produce. For a start, they are isolated from each other in ways that sentences or paragraphs in an article are not. They usually have a single purpose, such as providing a description, explanation, answer or a quote. That purpose must be explicit not only in the focus of the writing, but also in the metadata labels, or ‘tags’, that describe the element. The elements must be written in such a way that they are useful in different contexts — without necessarily knowing which other elements have been seen by the reader prior to, or following, their use. They must also be useful over time — and so they can’t assume that news consumers just ‘know’ what’s going on. They must also have provenance, or evidence, associated with them so that their journalistic integrity can be tracked and perhaps even communicated to consumers.
The larger structures into which these bot elements are assembled are also editorial — dialog trees or bot experiences need to cover certain subject matter, they need to be impartial, and they need to be able to expand as events unfold and stories develop. They need to be edited, verified and crafted to fit editorial guidelines and objectives, and maintained and extended as feedback or analytics data from news consumers becomes available. They are also likely to be authored by many journalists, working over an extended period of time, rather than by a single author working alone for a few days.
All of these challenges are editorial, but none of them resemble the practices, workflows and processes of traditional news production. They require exploration of radically new forms of writing and are deeply innovative by any standard, but that innovation is not technical.