While some journalists still seem to be wondering how best to limit the impact of information technology on their craft, the issues at stake are already dealing with other dimensions of the changes these tools have brought. The tension today lies somewhere between what we might call the “napsterization of news” (when everybody communicates with everybody and when everybody contributes with information and views) and what I call “algorithm journalism.” On one hand, people use new technologies to transform the ways in which news is gathered, edited and distributed. At the same time, however, and for a variety of reasons, computers are being used to execute some of the essential tasks that had been traditionally reserved for journalists.
The situation in journalism seems to be following an old pattern from an earlier conflict between those who wanted computers to substitute for what humans do and those who wanted them used to augment our capacities.
Let’s consider what nonjournalists can do—and have started doing. They contribute to the news stream with text, photographs and now audio, due to a technology known as podcasting. Video images are not far behind.
On some Nokia cell phones (a few other companies offer similar products) video can be shot and edited with a program called Movie Director. The Nokia 6880, for example, has two cameras, a direct connection to a printer, memory to store songs, and a high-band connection to the Internet. Using it, a person can shoot video, edit it along with music to accompany the images, and send it to a blog, a wiki, or to a news site, such as the BBC, which uses audience contributions in reporting on significant news events, as it did the London bomb attacks in July.
Technology enables other changes, including the following:
At the Web site http://del.icio.us/, users can tag Web pages and share what they tag. Evidence of the growth in tagging can be found at sites such as Flickr.com (for photos), Technorati.com (for blogs), and Yahoo.com’s new “social engine” (for Web sites). This represents the basic level of what some technology analysts call “folksonomy.” By helping its users categorize news, they can do what editors usually do, while also commenting on the news.
RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds can be viewed as a complement to this practice because they allow users to select and collect bits and pieces of information coming from different media. Instead of receiving the news via e-mail (a practice that is growing cumbersome), consumers either use a special program like FeedDemon (turning it on when they want to) or go to a Web page like Bloglines.com on which the chosen feeds are constantly updated.
These easy-to-access devices provide tools for an emerging social phenomenon often referred to as “citizen journalism,” in which people who have not received any journalism training contribute to news coverage by supplying stories and commentary either with words (read and heard) or images (static or moving.)
Technology Takes Over
Some informed observers point to a different phenomenon in which significant parts of what journalists do is executed instead by some form of technology. Such changes can be attributed, in part, to the volume and speed at which news reporting and information is now being collected and must be distributed. “There is too much information available on the Internet,” says Jean-François Fogel, who helps run LeMonde.fr, the French newspaper’s Web site. And news changes so fast that a paper’s Web site is constantly reorganized by computer algorithms that determine the position of an image on the site’s home page and the importance of a story as it unfolds. Though people at LeMonde.fr still make some decisions with the Web site’s appearance, Fogel wonders if in the future this kind of work “will be handled by people or by algorithms.”
Google News already relies on computers to collect and distribute emerging news stories without human intervention. Given where such sites are today, it does not require much imagination to envision, for instance, a city with cameras installed in many places and a Web site with powerful algorithms that select which views are the most likely to interest its users. The users could even preselect the views they want to see, such as an avenue each day at rush hour or live images of accidents when they might happen. (In the case of the accident, the software that goes with the camera detects that “an accident” has happened and sends images to the computers of those who said they were interested.)
What I’ve begun to call “algorithm journalism” might seem far-fetched to many people, and it probably is. But journalists should not overlook the fact that as technological tools are created, more and more parts of our usual tasks will be able to be taken over by software programs as they become smarter and more capable of doing these tasks at a speed we can’t ignore.
The “napsterization” of news and information might be inevitable. On her Web site Napsterization.org, Mary Hodder defines this napsterization as “the disintermediation by new technologies and digital media of old economy, incumbent institutions, and analog frameworks.“ This is happening in many industries, and journalism is not an exception.
In the end, though, the actual impact of technology varies widely according to social factors. At a recent conference organized by the Fundación para un Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano, created by the Nobel Prize-winner and former journalist Gabriel García Márquez, the intersection of such forces was highlighted. Rosental Calmon Alves, who holds the Knight Chair in Journalism and UNESCO Chair in Communication at the University of Texas at Austin, reminded participants that the crisis of traditional news media “started in the ’70’s, but it accelerated with the Web.” And Alves went on to say that “the Internet is but the top of the iceberg of the digital revolution. The threat it represents for journalism has no precedent in the history of media.”
A report entitled “Abandoning the News,” published in the spring of 2005 in the Carnegie Reporter and written by Merrill Brown, a media consultant and founder of MMB Media LLC, explains well the many reasons why young people no longer turn to the traditional sources of news. (Brown’s report is available at www.carnegie.org/reporter/10/news/index.html.)
Explanations for young people’s exodus abound, but none of us should overlook the “disbelief in metanarratives” that postmodernists called to our attention. Journalists who produce the initial narratives of our daily lives should be most alert, since young people essentially want to assume authorship of the narratives of their own lives. Because they have almost instant access to more information than previous generations had, and they know more about places they live in and events that happen there than most journalists do, they insist their voices—their perspectives—will be heard.
Ultimately, perhaps, the napsterization of news will be understood as a democratization of journalism with the aid of technology, an idea that is difficult to argue against. The challenge for journalists resides in how to best adapt while preserving the essential values of our craft. n
Francis Pisani, a 1993 Nieman Fellow, is a columnist for El Pais, a columnist for Reforma in Mexico, and Weblogger for Le Monde. As a visiting instructor at the University of California at Berkeley, he studies the social impact of information technologies on globalization and international relations.