I have seen the future. And we're not in it

A
mock documentary has painted an alarmingly convincing picture of a
future where professional news gathering is a thing of the past. Press
Gazette editor Ian Reeves tries to separate the facts from the science
fiction

PING! Another email arrives
from my friend Malc. It’s obviously from him because the subject
line is “Now will u write about blogs…?”.

It is the latest in a series of messages he’s been sending for the
past few months haranguing me for so poorly covering The Next Big
Thing. My rather weak defence, that we have done plenty of stories
about journalists doing blogs, has been met with snorts of derision.
“You’ll get it… eventually,” he says.

And with this latest email, my resistance crumbles like a Paxman Newsnight victim.

It’s
an eight-minute mock documentary available on the internet
(click here to watch it), made by a couple of journalists
from the US, Matt Thompson of a newspaper called the Fresno Bee and Robin
Sloan of a cable news channel in San Francisco. Set in 2014, and
ostensibly made by the Museum of Media History, it sets an apocalyptic
scene.

“People have access to a breadth and depth of information
unimaginable in an earlier age,” intones the stern narrator, sounding
rather like Vincent Price. “Everyone contributes. Everyone participates
in some way to a living, breathing media landscape.

However, the press as we knew it has ceased to exist.

The
fortunes of the fourth estate have waned. 20th century news
organisations have become an afterthought, a lonely remnant of a not
too distant past.”

The documentary’s timeline (see box) traces
the media’s “history” from the foundation of the World Wide Web in 1989
to the creation in 2014 of EPIC, the Evolving Personalized Information
Construct.

EPIC is described as “a summary of the world, deeper,
broader, more nuanced than anything ever available before”. Its content
is created by everyone in the world – blogs, videos, music, news
reports – and is ranked depending on how other people rate it for
topicality, quality, reliability and interest. Each user’s consumption
is personalised, totally customised, and based on their own previous
behaviour and the suggestions of people like them.

EPIC is a
global news organisation with no journalists, in which the citizens are
both consumer and creator. A few “editors” do make money by taking a
tiny cut of EPIC’s massive advertising revenue, but there is almost no
such thing as a “reporter” in the way we know that term today.

The
New York Times, having lost its massive copyright case in 2011 against
Googlezon (the company formed in 2009 by a merger of Google and
Amazon)n at the Supreme Court, has closed its web site in “feeble
protest” and is now a print-only newsletter “for the elite and the
elderly”.

It might sound like something from a film starring
Laurence Fishburn in a long leather coat, but the frightening thing
about this is not just that the timeline is so short, more that the
whole thing is so damn plausible.

Indeed, there is nothing in it
that represents a greater leap of imagination than was required to get
us from 1989 to the present day. Most of the developments suggested for
the next nine years are more about changes in scale rather than
technical or creative breakthroughs.

Interestingly, my friend
Malc is not himself a journalist, which perhaps explains his relish at
showing me a future in which people like me play no obvious part. He’s
a highly successful IT professional whose enthusiasm for all of this
stems from his interest in the application of the technology behind it.
But how seriously should I be taking his evangelism?

Let’s start with blogging.

Blogger.com,
launched back in 1999, is a personal online publishing tool that has
really taken off in the past couple of years. Its software, available
free to anyone with an internet connection, allows them to publish
their own news and commentary on any subject they like. The growth of
blogs – and there are plenty of other versions of software available –
has been phenomenal. There have been high-profile success stories like
the Baghdad Blogger, whose postings from the Iraq war gave an insight
that no journalist could match, or the bloggers who exposed huge
failings in a CBS broadcast about President Bush’s war record.

In
2004, bloggers for the first time received press passes to cover the
conventions during the Presidential elections. But, more importantly,
blogging has created a new breed of individuals chronicling the events
that shape the world.

Journalists haven’t been especially slow on
the uptake. Plenty of individuals and publications have blogs of their
own. At the recent conference of Newspaper Ombudsmen, The Guardian’s
Emily Bell told an audience of senior international editors that she
would be likely to dismiss job applications from young journalists who
did not have their own blog.

But the thing that immediately
becomes obvious is how much utter drivel there is out there. For every
blogger who has real insight, there are a 10,000 more banging on about
their spectacularly tedious lives to the benefit of absolutely no-one.

Aha, so it’s all a waste of time. And there’s nothing to alarm the professional journalist.

Not quite. Predictably, there’s a technological solution.

In
this case, the RSS feed. There is some uncertainty as to what RSS
stands for, but “Really Simple Syndication” works as well as any. It
allows you to identify the content you like from various sources and
have it delivered directly to your computer via a News Reader – which
looks and feels very similar to your email inbox. It filters out all
the banal guff and allows you to focus on items of specific interest to
you. Examples of RSS software are SharpReader or Shrook. (Press Gazette has its own RSS feed at www.pressgazette.co.uk/rss.php)

There
are further refinements too. A site called Technorati, for example,
ranks blogs according to how many other sites link to them. It’s a
simple and effective (and Google-like) way of working out what’s
respected and what’s not in the place now known as the
“blogosphere”.Technorati founder David Sifry, who started the site less
than three years ago, says he is “humbled by the amazing growth of the
blogosphere… I would have never guessed… that by putting simple
personal publishing tools in the hands of anyone who wanted one would
have so many ripple effects around the world.”

Around of all of
this, the debate about whether bloggers are journalists has swirled.
It’s increasingly looking like an irrelevant question. Certainly, some
of the star bloggers are followed every bit as enthusiastically (and
much more interactively) than any newspaper columnist.

Then
there’s the term “citizen reporter”. It was pioneered by an
organisation called OhmyNews in South Korea, a country where around 80
per cent of households have a broadband internet connection.

Launched
five years ago, OhmyNews encouraged members of the public to contribute
stories and comment to a virtual newspaper. Since then, it has
attracted global attention, especially after it played a vital role in
electing Roh Moo Hyun as the current president of Korea. OhmyNews now
has more than 38,000 citizen reporters writing for the Korean and
International editions, including 600 from overseas.

Most of them
earn only tiny “cybercash” payments (even a top news item is worth just
£11) – although one or two have hit the jackpot by asking readers to
make voluntary donations after reading a story. At the end of this
month, the company is holding the first International Citizen
Reporters’ Forum in Seoul.

Al Gore, the former US vice
president, is launching his own version of online participatory TV
journalism this August. Called Current.tv, it mobilises thousands of
amateur videophotographer citizen journalists, along the lines of
OhmyNews.

And then there’s the concept of what is known as “open
source” journalism, a term borrowed from computing terminology. “Open
source” software are computer programmes whose code is freely available
for individuals anywhere to access and modify, unlike the code behind,
say, Microsoft’s Windows, which is jealously guarded by its creators.
The idea is that the more programmers who can refine the software, the
better it becomes.

Apply this to journalism and you get an
organic forum where every story can be honed and edited by a succession
of “reporters”, each of them adding their own new information or
correcting previous errors.

A brilliant example of open source
publishing is the web encyclopedia known as Wikipedia (an its sister site Wiktionary), whose entries
are continually being updated by its users.

Any of them – which
means anyone in the world – can modify any Wikipedia definition.
Although it’s not a news site, it claimed to be the first media outlet
of any sort to note the death of iconic feminist writer Andrea Dworkin.

So
it’s not hard to see how powerful this model could be in the world of
journalism. NowPublic, an open source news site that allows users to
build their own news stories, launched in Vancouver this month. The
website plans to bring together the power of photographers – amateur
and professional – and bloggers, letting them work together to cover
news stories.

“We invite you to join this revolution,” says the
slightly hysterical blurb on the site, which is still very much in
development. “Take control of the news. Make it deliver information
about your community, your interests, your life. It’s time. The news is
NowPublic.” It wants all of its users to participate by adding new
stories, photographs and video to the site and by commenting on and
updating existing content. It certainly doesn’t care whether they’re
trained journalists or not.

Blogging. Citizen journalism. Open source news.

They’re
all happening right now. And involving huge numbers of people.
GoogleNews already delivers aggregated content from numerous sources,
shown as extracts effectively “edited” entirely by computers. So does
Microsoft’s Newsbot – which has the added twist that the type of
stories you click on determines what it recommends in the future.

In
that light, the EPIC documentary really does begin to look convincing.
Couple that with the fact that this Christmas’s big-selling home gadget
is likely to be the Windows XP Media Centre, which converges
television, internet, music system and PC into one box in the living
room, and it’s easy to get carried away with the notion that as a
profession, we’re all doomed.

The documentary’s News War of 2010
does not involve any news organisation – it pivots on which internet
company can develop the next “killer” piece of software. It is won when
Googlezon creates a programme that can extract elements from different
news stories, and automatically “edit” them together based on each
user’s history. It literally creates a personalised news agenda of
individually customised news stories for every reader. All done by
computer.

The fictitious EPIC may be the all-conquering result
but, as the narrator intones, “at its worst – and for far too many
people – it is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of
it narrow, shallow, sensational. But it is what we wanted, what we
chose. Its success pre-empted any discussion of media and democracy or
journalism ethics.”

And in that paragraph we find the fatal flaw in the documentary’s argument.

Without
real journalists, out in the real world, asking real questions of real
people, the blogosphere becomes a house built with foundations in sand,
a talking shop with nothing to discuss. It supposes a media landscape
where everything “newsworthy” is discovered almost accidentally, and
finds no place for campaigning journalism, for difficult investigations
or for direct challenges to authority.

A new respected US report
says the impact of bloggers is far more limited than the hype suggests
– that, apart from a handful of exceptions, they always follow, rather
than set the news. In the UK they have barely pricked the wider
national consciousness.

The documentary’s armageddon endgame also
requires a public desire to participate in the news, to lean forward
rather than sit back, that has remained stubbornly hidden so far.

But
even if it’s not bang on the money, it’s still a vision that none of us
can afford to ignore. Rupert Murdoch, in his well-reported “wake-up
call” speech about digital media last month certainly isn’t.

As Malc says, when even the dinosaurs get it…

 

THE ‘EPIC’ COUNTDOWN

1989: World Wide Web created

1994: Amazon.com launches, a shop based on personalised recommendations

1998: Google, a search engine that treats links as recommendations, launches

1999: Tivo unshackles TV from the constraints of time Blogger, a personal publishing tool, launches

2002: Friendster, an online
community network is founded Google News. A news service edited
entirely by computers begins 2004: Sony/Philips produce mass market
electronic paper Newsbot, Microsoft’s answer to Google News, launches
Amazon launches A9, a search engine based on its trademark
recommendations

2005: Microsoft buys Friendster. Google becomes a public company

2006: The Google Grid is
launched, a universal platform allowing users to share and store media
of all kinds. It’s never been easier for anyone to create as well as
consume media

2007: Microsoft launches
Newsbotster, a participatory journalism platform that ranks and sorts
news and allows everyone to comment on what they see. Epaper becomes
cheaper than real paper

2008: Googlezon is formed
from the merger of Amazon and Google, providing a “social
recommendation engine” that allows total customisation of content and
advertising

2010: The News Wars between
Microsoft and Googlezon are notable in that no actual news
organisations are involved. Googlezon develops an algorithm that allows
its computers to construct news stories from a variety of sources. It
literally creates a new news story for every reader

2011: The New York Times
sues Googlezon for violation of copyright law. And loses. The NYT
closes its online publishing arm in feeble protest

2014: Googlezon unleashes
EPIC, the Evolving Personal Information Construct, a massive multimedia
platform to which everyone contributes blogs, videos, pictures and news
reports

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