A journalist is not a gadget

September 13, 2010

My second installment discussing Jaron Lanier’s You are not a gadget.

In the future, writing might not be something anymore that is entirely done by humans, and that surely needs to be debated.

Mercedes Bunz

The future is crashing in on the present and we are confronted by a world in which it might be ‘OK’ for robots to replace human reporters (Allen, 2010; Bunz, 2010a). Researchers in the Systems Informatics Lab, at Tokyo University, have built a machine that can ‘autonomously explore its environment and report what it finds’. Using an on-board camera to interview people and a Google search to ‘round out its understanding’, the newsbot ‘will even write a short article and publish it to the web’ (Dawson, 2010). At Northwestern University, in the Intelligent Information Lab, scientists are developing a ‘fully automated’ system for creating broadcast news by aggregating material from online sources to ‘drive a set of animated characters who reside in a virtual “news world”’ (InfoLab, 2010).

I don’t know about you, but I am not ready for this brave ‘news world’. Neither it seems is former cyber-guru turned tocsin Jaron Lanier.

Jaron Lanier’s You are not a gadget warns against the dehumanizing effects of ubiquitous computing and of relying too heavily on algorithms. His argument is simple: in order to believe that machines are smarter than us we have to dumb-down our own cognitive and reasoning abilities. He argues that the hive mind is the wrong kind of collective thinking and has coined the term ‘digital Maoists’ to describe the evangelists for a disembodied digital ‘brain’ that haunts the Internet.

Lanier believes the digital Maoists are ‘cybernetic totalists’ whose enthusiasm for algorithms and the ‘digital cloud’ betrays an ‘antihuman rhetoric’. He argues that if we are ‘locked in’ to this way of thinking—a form of technological determinism—we will turn into digital peasants: collectivized into stupidity, enthralled and entrapped by meta-data, algorithms and the aggregation of aggregators.

You are not a gadget is a call to action before it’s too late to stop the dehumanizing effects of too much computing. Lanier rejects the fervid ‘religious belief’ in machine-intelligence evident among the cybernetic totalists. He also believes that ‘aesthetics and emotions’ must compete with ‘rational argument’ in order to extend our humanity. I am drawn to Lanier’s unorthodox approaches and to his critique of the ‘techno-political-cultural orthodoxy’ that expanding computational capacity will somehow solve the world’s problems.

I’m all in favour of improving our lives through the intelligent application of technology, but I am reluctant to put my trust entirely in machines when it comes to news and journalism. We must be alert to the dangers of relinquishing control to impenetrable algorithms. To fail is to risk ceding all decision-making power to the digital Maoists: then it might be too late.

Allen, R. (2010, 23 March). Automated Sports Content: The future of sports journalism. StatSheet Retrieved 3 September, 2010, from http://statsheet.com/blog/automated-sports-content-the-future-of-sports-journalism

Bunz, M. (2010a, 30 March). In the US, algorithms are already reporting the news. PDA: The digital content blog Retrieved 1 September, 2010, from http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/pda/2010/mar/30/digital-media-algorithms-reporting-journalism

Dawson, R. (2010, 15 April). The rise of robot journalists. Trends in the Living Networks Retrieved 3 September, 2010, from http://rossdawsonblog.com/weblog/archives/2010/04/the_rise_of_rob.html

InfoLab. (2010, n.d.). News at Seven.   Retrieved 3 september, 2010, from http://infolab.northwestern.edu/projects/news-at-seven/

Lanier, J. (2010). You are not a gadget: A manifesto. Melbourne: Penguin.

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Can journalism survive the Internet?

June 19, 2010

It was great to be on stage at LATE a couple of weeks ago. The panel was talking about the future of journalism and I was there to give the ‘pointy-head’ view. Brent Impey, former boss at Mediaworks, represented the ‘hard-headed’ business perspective; Eric Kealy, head of TVNZ 6 & 7 was the ‘one-foot-in-both-camps’ semi-pubic broadcasting voice and Colin Peacock, MediaWatch presenter, was, as always, the voice of reason and ‘Mr Nice Guy’.

It was a load of fun and the feedback seemed to be it was one of the liveliest panels in a while and a bit of “biff” between the panelists was seen as a good thing. The audience certainly got involved; plenty of laughter and cheers in among the serious squirrel stuff.

The video is now online at the LATE site and on YouTube, so you can watch it without leaving the comfy frontroom of Ethical lMartini

There was a twitterwall too, mostly good comments and one or two snarks.

The possibility that TVNZ might be put up for sale by a second-term National government highlights some of the contradictions in the ‘hard head’ and ‘semi-public viewpoints about broadcasting policy and political economy.

A couple of weeks ago in the Weekend Herald John Drinnan’s column raises the idea of a TVNZ float and current CEO Rick Ellis is quoted giving a personal view that it shouldn’t be sold to foreigners.

Ellis says that the Kiwi-ness of the network might be lost and also its independent voice in news and current affairs; but in fact that is not the real issue.

Foreign or domestic commercial ownership of TVNZ will have an effect. It will no longer be even ‘semi-public’ broadcasting and perhaps the TVNZ 6 & 7 channels will become shell templates into which anything discarded as commercially to hard or not profitable will be dumped.

Eric Keally talked about this model @LATE, suggesting that such a split could work with 6 & 7 becoming the home of public service broadcasting. It seems that the plan being talked about at the highest levels is creating this kind of hybrid public service broadcaster that would include Radio New Zealand, TVNZ 6 & 7 and Heartland channels and (if the real hard-heads get their way) Maori TV.

The only thing stopping the MBS being shoved in kicking and screaming is that it would be a political hard sell to the Maori constituency. But, there’s generally derision and contempt for Maori TV in some circles. Plenty of the good and powerful think it’s a disgrace that the MBS got the Rugby World Cup and there’s a feeling that MTV is totally unwatched.

Patronisingly some folk say it’s good at doing “language” stuff, but that it should leave real broadcasting to the big boys. The same people are also scornful of the MBS ever being commercially viable and they take delight in pointing out that it only survives because of cosy deals with government departments.

You see, even while paying lip service to the ideals of public broadcasting the hard heads and the semi-publics actually want the same thing. To get their hands on more of the broadcasting pie.

As I mentioned @LATE and what got me most passionate on the evening was the whole “dumbing down” debate. The hard heads and sem-publics don’t really get this. They believe in market-choice and “let the audience decide”. They also fetishise the idea of “choice”, but it is the producers who are in charge.

The people in control of production determine the content; not the audience. And while there is a great deal of choice, particularly in the digital age of endless streaming of content via the Web what does it really do for us?

It’s a downside of the “Daily Me” that fragmentation of audiences destroys our collective conversation and shatters the public sphere into millions of sphericules that don’t intersect and hardly ever interact with each other.

A speech that wasn’t given

LATE is not the sort of function where one gives a speech, but I wrote one anyway; mainly to get my thoughts clear. It’s a summary of the arguments in News 2.0, so I thought I’s share it here.

News 2.0: Can journalism survive the Internet?

LATE @ the museum – 3 June 2010

A/Prof Martin Hirst, Journalism Curriculum Leader,
School of Communication Studies, AUT University

I’d like to thank the Auckland War Memorial Museum for the opportunity to speak at LATE on the topic of journalism’s future.

I have been to several of these sessions and I think they are an important and fun addition to the intellectual and cultural life of this great city and of New Zealand more generally.

To be invited here as a contributor, rather than an audience member, is indeed an honour.

Can I start by explaining the title of my forthcoming book, which is in two parts.

Consuming News 2.0

The first part of the title “News 2.0” refers to the emerging paradigm for news consumption and production.

In terms of consumption the key factor in the new paradigm is mobility. We are no longer locked into to only consuming news at certain times of the day.

Typically, people of my generation (I guess I’m a late baby boomer) would consume news in fairly static and sedentary ways.

It might start with reading a morning newspaper – at home or in transit to our place of work – or with listening to a radio broadcast over breakfast, or in the car.

And then we would go into a kind of news-free zone for most of our working day. We might hear some breaking news from colleagues or friends who had heard it on the radio, but by and large, our next dose of news would be the afternoon newspaper (now most certainly the dinosaurs of the analogue age) or we would sit and watch a broadcast TV bulletin sometime in the early evening – typically the lead in to what we still call, but with less conviction perhaps, “prime time”.

For most of the past 20 years we might also – if we were serious news junkies –watch a late evening bulletin before retiring for the night.

We no longer do most of our news consuming in that way anymore. Even us baby boomers have adapted – we’ve become digital immigrants – and we consume our news through wireless connections to our laptops and tablets, on our PCs at all hours during the working day and through our mobile phones.

In fact, it hardly seems fair or adequate anymore to call these indispensible hand-held communicators “phones”.

They are so much more. A phone is also camera for still and video images; they are personal jukeboxes and they are our permanent connection to the world of news and information.

News seems to follow us around like a bad smell. It invades our pores and the membranes of our brains and it seems we can hardly ever turn it off – even if we want to.

But there’s another problem too. The very definition of news – its taken-for-grantedness and the venerated values that turn information into news – is changing too.

With mobility comes mountains of extra choice and an endless supply of news-like information that can be infinitely tailored, redesigned and reconfigured to suit our personal, individual tastes and prejudices.

We have moved from the age of broadcasting to the age of narrowcasting.

This has been described as “The Daily Me”, our ability to customise the news we see through various online readers and aggregators, RSS feeds and by “following” our favourite news sources through social media applications like Twitter or an social networking sites such as Facebook.

Social media has changed the look and feel of news forever.

From consumption to production

I will return to that theme in a moment, but first let’s look at News 2.0 from a production point of view.

And here we can introduce another important thesis from my book. There is a two-fold crisis in the news industry today. It is a situation that many senior news figures, including Arthur Sulzberger Jr of the famous newspaper family, who calls the crisis a “perfect storm”.

The first element of the crisis is about the profitability of media capital. All the major players – from Rupert Murdoch to Mediaworks’ owners Ironbridge – are very worried about declining circulations, ratings, advertising revenues and therefore a shrinking bottom line.

The almost universal response – typical of crisis management in the capitalist economy – has been downsizing. Newsrooms have shrunk, story budgets have collapsed and there are no resources for expensive overseas bureaux and highly-paid senior and investigative reporters.

As a consequence – and a likely cause of the second element of the crisis – audiences are losing trust. We no longer believe in the factual and “objective” values of the traditional news media. Journalists are among the least respected of the professions – beaten into last place in most surveys only by hookers and hucksters.

In addition we are also suffering from an overload of public relations and marketing that is repackaged into a news-like text, but clearly has a commercial, rather than an informational purpose. Most recent studies from around the globe suggest that more than half of what we see in the form of news has its origins in PR and spin.

Journalists are out-numbered by 2 or 3 to 1 in most major news markets and this imbalance is likely to get a lot worse before – if at all – it begins to improve again.

So, a very clear result of this has been the emergence of alternative forms, sources and types of news.

While we have ever greater choice and – until the great paywall comes down – unprecedented access to news sources, we are in fact consuming less of what we might call “hardcore” public interest news and more of the softer, celebrity-focused, opinion-laden and frankly at times highly unreliable forms of news-like information that is generated from the blogosphere, the twittersphere and from the broadcast yourself social media such as YouTube.

Collectively this avalanche of social media is known as Web 2.0 and the first part of my title is a play on that; which brings me to the second part of my book title:

Can journalism survive the Internet?

Why is this an issue?

There’s one very clear and simple explanation for this – the Internet and the World Wide Web (and pedants tell me they are different things) have fundamentally altered the process of news consumption and news production.

There’s obviously a lot more behind this unsurprising observation and I’ve hinted at some of it.

In more pointy-headed terms I would argue that the whole political economy of the news media has changed.

In my book, which I hope is for a general and well-informed readership, I talk about this using the metaphor of the “singularity”.

The singularity is scientifically-defined as that point in time where machine intelligence outstrips the thinking capacity of the human brain.

But I prefer to talk about it in the language of Charles Stross, one of my favourite sci-fi authors whose book, The Singularity Sky tells the story of a hyper-evolved species of machine-dwelling sentient beings who cause a full-scale revolution on an earth-like planet that they decide to visit for a spot of fun.

At one point in the book one of the sentients’ camp-followers makes a telling remark to one of the human leaders of the planetary revolt:

“Talk you of tradition in the middle of a singularity?”

The planet’s ruling elite collapses under the sheer weight of the gift economy established by the singularity’s arrival and, I would argue, we can use this metaphor to examine the news industry’s responses to Web 2.0 – the explosion of social media and social networking across the Internet.

Can journalism survive the perfect storm of declining profits, the suspicion of audiences and the threat “from below” – the millions and billions of bytes of user-generated news-like content that is being published, broadcast, narrowcast, blogged, tweeted, uploaded and downloaded across the planet.

My answer is a qualified “Yes”.

It’s “yes” because I believe that the desire for information, for us to be informed and to want “news” of our neighbours, friends and enemies is fundamental to the human condition.

We have needed and found ways to circulate news-like information from the very beginnings of human social life. I don’t see that changing any time soon.

But I qualify my belief in the future of journalism because, frankly, we just don’t know what journalism will really look like in the future.

There are currently a number of proposals, talking points and even experiments in new forms of journalistic endeavour, but nobody is certain that one or another of these models will actually work, or will be a salvation for the news industry.

I think the news industry is resilient and the signs are that the whole cultural expectation that news on the Web will be free is being worried away and slowly wound back by paywalls – Murdoch is about to close off free access to his news properties and the New York Times will do so from next year.

In New Zealand there is a paywall around the Business Review’s premiere content and we may well see Fairfax and APN follow suit.

Paywalls come with their own particular sets of problems – not the least of which is our resistance to paying and the smaller returns that accrue in online media from both subscriptions and advertising.

Most experts agree that there is a cost to the company when a paywall is imposed and that any gain in subscription revenue could be eaten up by a loss in advertising as the viewing audience is restricted.

But news companies are also finding ways to monetize the clickstream around user-generated news-like content too.

CNN’s iReport is one example of a major legacy media giant adopting some of the principles of “D-I-Y” media culture. User-generated content becomes the property of CNN and any revenue stays with the company.

In political economy terms this is free labour that can be monetized and add to the bottom line for CNN and others who adopt this model – and most large media companies operate this way.

Finally, journalism will survive the Internet but with substantial changes. There is likely to be more UGNC, not less and more audience interaction, not less and more amateur journalism, more blogging, more tweeting and more use of social media to circulate news-like content.

Whether or not this is a good thing in terms of the public interest and the public sphere is yet to be seen.


Inquirer sale – save a paper to kill an industry?

April 29, 2010

The troubled Philadelphia Inquirer and its sister tabloid the Daily News have new owners this week after a fierce bidding war between a consortium of creditors and a billionaire business figure.

The consortium of lenders won with a bid of $139 million, but this price is a fraction of the value in the company the last time it changed hands.

In 2006 the Inquirer and the News were sold for $515 million. That could have been an inflated price at the time, but the fall is indicative of the way that newspaper companies have been hemorrhaging value over the last five years.

The sale removes the threat of bankruptcy from the papers, but as one local Inquirer staffer and union rep said, it may be out of the frying pan and into the fire. The question remains: What will the new owners do with two newspapers in an urban market that clearly cannot sustain them?

“There is certainly a tremendous sense of relief in that this long and complex and rather torturous bankruptcy process may finally be at an end,” said Diane Mastrull, a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and a chair of The Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia. “But we are also somewhat worried because now we enter possibly another new and terrifying phase, and that is new ownership without much of an idea of what their expectations are for their business and what their commitment to the businesses will be.” [Papers sold to creditors group]

The Inquirer group has been in trouble for some time and has been facing closure for months. Even so, the Daily News won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 2010.

The new owners are already calling for “concessions” from the newspaper unions representing staff on the mastheads.

You can reasonably interpret this as more job cuts, less staffing and budget for news operations, more advertorial, etc. etc.

The papers seem safe-ish for now, but their long-term future is far from certain. There are likely to be similar fire sales in other American news markets too.

Circulation figures released this week show an overall decline of around 9 percent across most major markets in the US.

The San Francisco Chronicle – already under the threat of closure from owners the Hearst Corporation, showed a decline of over 20 percent.

While the decline has not yet proved terminal for some titles, year on year for the past three years it has been steady and shows no sign of turning around.

That’s why the sale of the Inquirer to creditors could still be dangerous. If they want to cut their losses and get back whatever they can on their investment, closure could still be on the cards.


The Open Newsroom – a study of New Zealand newsrooms and citizen journalism

February 11, 2010

Congratulations to Masters student Vincent Murwira. He has completed his dissertation research project and it is now available for public viewing.

There is a trend with postgraduate students to present their work in non-traditional ways and we encourage that here at AUT.

Vincent is an experienced reporter and camera operator with many years in the field in South Africa before he arrived in New Zealand.

For this project he conducted lots of interviews; many of them with faces that New Zealand news insiders (and members of the public) will know well.

The project is, IMHO (declaration, I was a supervisor), well executed and certainly just about as up-to-date as it is possible to be in the rapidly changing world of print, broadcast and online journalism today.

I’d also like to express my appreciation to all our colleagues who were willing to give their time to Vincent. Without their participation, of course, a project like this is not possible.

Vincent’s site The Open Newsroom is now open and he’s hoping to keep it fresh through blogging regularly.

Please take a look. Vincent and I would value some feedback.

Click the image for the link


Whale-watching: Frenemies like these

January 14, 2010

Prime Minister John Key has warned blogger Cameron Slater he cannot break name suppression laws just because he disagrees with them.

The warning came as Whanganui Mayor and former MP Michael Laws started a fighting fund yesterday on his talkback radio show for Slater’s legal defence.

Stuff.co.nz: Blogger warned

Indeed, the horse has bolted.

Perhaps this is the start of the shitstorm  Whaleoil promised us last week.

  1. I bet Russell is puce-faced
  2. A victim writes
  3. Finally a judge we can believe in
  4. A suppression joke
  5. A mad woman’s poo

The last, in particular invokes the storm image.

The victim’s message is heart-felt, no doubt, but what does it add to rhe debate, The perceptions – that there is no “justce”, that “bastards” deserve “it”, are populist myths that feed the whole vengance riff and notion that the “system” has failed victims of crime, that I mentioned last week.

Here’s a few more links to push some thinking on this issue.

Is there moral equivalence between naming someone who owes you money, a dickhead, local petty crimssex-addict celebrity love rats, sadistic child-killers and state-sanctioned torturers?


Revenge, name suppression and celebrity justice

January 7, 2010

The Whaleoil saga [background here and here] has led me to consider why the issue of name suppression for so-called celebrities (or more generally people with an already existing public profile/reputation) gets people so worked up.

There was a shared feeling of outrage when a semi-famous Kiwi “entertainer” was allowed permanent name suppression after pleading guilty to the sexual assault of a young woman and there were some demented folk exhibiting very vigilante-like tendencies when Whaleoil outed*** a former Kiwi Olympian previously convicted of a serious crime who was before the courts on further serious charges.

Now Whaleoil himself is before the courts charged with several counts of breaching suppression orders and identifying people subject to a name suppression order. But why is he taking on this crusade?

I came across some answers in a journal article from Crime, Media, Culture, which is published by Sage. The piece, “Naming, shaming and criminal justice: Mass-mediated humiliation as entertainment and punishment”, was written by Steven Kohm from the University of Winnipeg. I can’t link to the article from here as that would breach copyright and the fair access policy of AUT library. However, you can get links from Google Scholar and elsewhere.

The key arguments are as follows:

Shame is a dubious method of applying “justice” to criminals and since the advent of reality TV and forensic porn as entertainment, humiliation as a tool of social control has been amplified through the mass media – and more recently via social media – as a method of both punishment and as a form of voyeuristic and participatory entertainment.

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Whale-watching update: No “shit storm” on horizon

January 6, 2010

Here’s a round-up of some blogosphere commentary on the Whaleoil (Cameron Slater) story.

[If you need to backfill on this, a qick review of this NZ Herald story will get you up to speed.]

Whaleoil has a true friend in Cactus Kate. Not only is she prepared to stick up for him, even wondering if there is either a) some kind of set-up involved with Slater being in court on the same day as a “kiddy fiddler” (her words), or b) if the police are reluctantly pursuing the blogger because of an agenda being run from higher up.

I am wondering whether the Police actually want to charge Whaleoil with this crime? There are several factors that Whaleoil will use in his defence that make me think that their heart is not really in it and other external forces are at play.

This is interesting if a little ingenious. Rightwing bloggers were forever accusing the Labor government of politicising legal proceedings; but really coincidence or conspiracy? It seems an easy choice. But one thing about Ms Cactus,  she’s also prepared to dish some tough love:

As I advise anyone who comes to Whaleoil’s attention, the best course of action is to be polite and either ignore what he has written or write to him in a manner which puts your side of the story and he will more often than not be reasonable enough to publish that. He has a short span of attention thanks to his depression and soon moves to a new target.

The worst course of action is to give Whaleoil opposition. He is mental. I mean this in a loving caring way to his friends, but to his foe he shows as much hatred as he does love for his friends. Whaleoil loves opposition, he loves conflict and more importantly will never back down.

This could be coded warning for people not to get in Whaleoil’s face about this, we’ll see. However, some are pointedly ignoring this advice and are getting stuck into Whaleoil. He has supporters and detractors in equal measure it would seem.

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