Can journalists keep up with the pace of disruption?

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For better or worse, journalism will see further disruptions as emerging technologies like AI, AR, VR to blockchain come to the fore

 

I recall a time when quoting netizens was frowned upon as lazy reporting. Now, news stories are often peppered with online comments, which have come to be accepted as a form of vox pop (interviews with the man in the street).

I also remember a brief period when journalists pondered if they could be accused of partiality for “liking” newsmakers on Facebook. Today, social media stalking is a professional requirement in journalism.

Some news veterans had recounted to me a more distant past when newsrooms would run stories on, say, a power outage only after receiving an official statement. It didn’t matter if a dozen eyewitnesses could confirm the blackout.

Not anymore. In the 24/7 digital newsrooms, journalists act fast to verify tip-offs, crowdsource for visuals and break the story as soon as they can. The timestamp is at times seen as a surer sign of competence – more so than whether the story has covered all grounds.

Changing times

The media was badly hit long before sectors like banking, retail and transport felt the pinch of digital disruption. Since the Internet took off, the barriers to entry to publishing have all but collapsed. Newsrooms had to compete with each other as well as content creators of all stripes on speed, price and multimedia capabilities. And just as they’re about to find their feet, readers and advertisers had found a new darling in social media.

For better or worse, this disruption is far from over. As emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), augmented (AR) reality, virtual reality (VR) and blockchain come to the fore, newsrooms will have to brace for more changes – from the way news is gathered, presented and funded.

AI and Journalism

As more and more aspects of human lives – from what we buy, how we surf to who we know – are digitised, more and more stories can also be found in the growing reservoir of data. Serious newsrooms know they must be equipped to interrogate big data if they want to stay on top of the game.

This is why the more profitable among them have shifted gear in recent years. Beyond grooming journalists who can interpret structured data and tell great stories with numbers, newsrooms are adding those who can scrape websites, consume APIs, wrangle data, create macro and code interactive graphics to their reporting teams. This is an expensive strategy, but they’re likely to commit to it until top journalism schools from the likes of Columbia and Stanford University are able to plug the talent gap with their data and computational journalism programmes.

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But, to stay ahead, newsrooms must also have the war chest to invest in artificial intelligence. AP, BBC, Reuters and a few others have started their own experiments with automated journalism, using AI-powered algorithms to churn through massive data sets, surface trends, spot anomalies, generate simple copy and tag pictures. The data reporters must still be counted on to humanise and contextualise the numbers, but over time, they’re likely to be outpaced by machines, especially in terms of data extraction and spot news coverage.

In fact, a US startup Knowhere is even hoping to use AI for not just faster but fairer reporting. The team is building an algorithm which they hope can remove loaded language and ideological biases from trending stories. If they succeed, they’ll be able to make a case for how technology can help restore public trust in a post-truth world.

AR/VR and Journalism

Readers who have seen the quirky animated video explainers on Vox or the sleek interactive guides on The Straits Times are likely to make this conclusion: news has never been more engaging to read, watch and interact with.

Ambitious newsrooms have been pulling out all the stops to court readers with new ways of digital storytelling. The New York Times is one of the frontrunners in this regard. It’s well-known for its elegantly coded multimedia features, daily 360-degree videos, and more recently, a series of AR stories that allow readers to see 3-dimensional projections of an object or person described in the stories – in their own physical space.

When married with the right materials, AR and VR can bring transformative changes to how news is experienced. Again, to produce such content, newsrooms have to be prepared to fork out more to hire or commission AR/VR engineers and UI/UX designers.

In many ways, disruptive innovations have made it possible for news to be delivered in a faster, snazzier fashion. Readers are the winners, but many newsrooms are still struggling to generate more returns for their investments.

Blockchain and Journalism

The ad-driven model which has served print and broadcast media so well for so long has simply broken. Digital newsrooms have tried many new revenue models, from producing sponsored content to implementing paywalls or seeking public donations. Most still haven’t found their magic bullet despite having paid their management consultants millions in fees.

There were calls for Google and Facebook, the duopolies in the digital ad market, to share part of their soaring profits with news publishers, who are key contributors of quality content to news aggregators and social media platforms. But the profit-sharing model is unlikely to take off, going by the tech giants’ recent submissions to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

As such, many small newsrooms are still facing existential threats while bigger ones struggle with investor malaise. Only a handful – those funded by taxpayers or owned by e-commerce giants – are spared the money woes.

A new wave of tech startups have proposed a micro-payment model which they believe can help sustain journalism. The more established among them is Blendle, a Dutch news aggregator which has partnered a growing list of German and American publishers. Its app, often described as the iTunes of journalism, features both the subscription and pay-per-story options. Readers can top up their in-app wallets using credit card or PayPal, and choose whether they want to pay for “ala carte items” or “set meals”. This model will appeal to some readers, but the small fees (US$0.49 for a New Yorker story for example) may still be big enough to deter the very cost-conscious.

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Some have started looking to blockchain technology for new revenue models. In recent months, several blockchain startups including Civil and DNN have proposed a media token framework for their respective journalism marketplaces. In general, their idea is to allow readers the option to pay for news using crypto tokens instead of (or on top of) fiat money. In return, readers can receive tokens for contributing their own content, moderating comments, or simply by paying attention to ads.

Theoretically, the blockchain-powered model can save readers some money as the token-based transactions can be completed at near-zero cost when the likes of Visa, Mastercard, PayPal or Apple Pay are no longer needed as intermediaries. Publishers may also find it easier to monetise their stories when copyrights are more enforceable in the blockchain system.

But for such a model to take off, there must be buy-ins from a good number of newsrooms and individual contributors. Readers must also be convinced enough to trade fiat money for bitcoin or ether, which they can then use to buy the platform-specific tokens. Given the wild swings in cryptocurrency prices, many readers – even those with a healthy appetite for speculations – are likely to stay on the sidelines in the near term.

Still, the viability of such a “nanopayment” model for journalism shouldn’t be dismissed too soon, too hastily – certainly not before we can find the magic bullet.

Cheong Poh Kwan is a former journalist who now teaches journalism in the School of Film & Media Studies, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, Singapore. She would like to thank Jeremy Wagstaff, a technology consultant and columnist, Matt Coolidge, co-founder of The Civil Media Company, and Foo Yueh Peng, senior journalism lecturer at Ngee Ann Polytechnic for contributing their perspectives to this piece.

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