Tuesday, September 25, 2012

March of the News Bots

In financial markets, there is a debate about the influence of program-driven trading systems in which complex algorithms working at lightning speed seek to take advantage of microscopic movements in prices. News is like that too.

High-Frequency Trading or HFT programs issue hundreds of buy and sell orders per second in a bid to make micro-profits out of noise. So desperate are they for a time advantage, HFT firms install servers as close as possible to exchange data rooms so they can get a jump on price movements.

While this blog steers clear of market analysis, the criticisms of HFT in places such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and here in Australia by commentators such as Alan Kohler  and the ABC’s Background Briefing are eerily reminiscent of what is happening in journalism right now.

Those criticisms boil down to a perception that the technological tail is waving the information dog; that an increasing emphasis on speed is coming at the cost of clarity and that we risk magnifying mis-perception by mistaking noise for signal.

Paul Wilson, writing in the specialist journalism publication Poynter, picked up on this similarity recently, noting how financial markets and media are increasingly at risk of an echo effect as faster communication technology amplifies mistakes.

The consequences of speed aren’t just felt by the intermediaries, though. The actors themselves often feel under pressure to respond to an ever quicker cycle and a machine whose demands for new and compelling content know no end.

Writing in Fairfax, journalist Lenore Taylor noted how easily it is now for politicians – improperly briefed and seeking to arbitrage information in a world where exclusivity is virtually non-existent – to fall flat on their faces in their bids for ‘gotchas’.

Yet, forums on the future of journalism continue to feature Bladerunner-ish prognostications by young boffins about how our information universes will be transformed forever by new ‘journobots’.

For an example, listen to the opening minutes of this round table from the Melbourne Writers’ Festival, aired on the ABC’s Media Report. The discussion is chaired by academic Margaret Simons and features NineMSN chief Hal Crawford, News Ltd’s digital guru David Higgins, AFL content head Matthew Pinkey, digital news consultant Bronwen Clune and former Age editor Paul Ramadge, now of Monash University.

There are the now ritual incantations about how the world is going mobile and how in “five years’ time” (it’s always five years), robots will be putting together share market reports based on percentage  market movements and ASX news releases.

The “Meet George Jetson” dreamscape is thankfully shattered by the panel’s most sensible member Paul Ramadge, who notes that few of these digital seers five years ago predicted that Twitter, in particular, would transform news the way it has.

“I often have talked about world of ‘fast’ and the world of ‘deep’,” he says. “The world of fast can be encapsulated by user-generated content, transactional reporting on financial markets at 4pm….fast, in-and-out, 24/7 churn.

“(But) who’s going to analyse what that is? Who’s going to put it in context? Who helps you understand? Who’s got the time to think? What is journalism? These are the bigger things for me.”

Ramadge has it exactly right, I think. The technology may change the forms of journalism, but not the value. Ever faster and ever more voluminous information does not equate to better understanding if it comes without context.

Indeed, the appetite for explanation and the demand for someone to make sense of the noise seems to me to be greater than ever.

Lest I be accused of being a fuddy duddy print-stained Luddite, keep in mind that I spent my career in journalism at the speedy end – in radio, the wires and online. At Reuters, we pioneered live video coverage of macro-economic events to currency markets in the mid-90s. And at the AFR, we were Walkley-nominated for our online innovation before the business heads locked it all up. So I’m the last person you could say was a prisoner of old technology.

But we are dealing here with the law of diminishing returns. Unless you’re a futures trader, the incremental value achieved through speed tends to reduce as newsbreaks are measured in micro-seconds. And relying on technology for a business advantage opens you up to the risk of commodification.

We can invent all the newsbots we like, but what people want from journalism is rather old fashioned – reliability, context, explanation, insight and understanding delivered in an engaging way. That hasn’t changed. Has it?

See also: The Hamster Wheel Vs The Quality Imperative - Columbia Journalism Review


  1. Not good news for the more one-eyed social media cheer squad.

    The problem is, while people want someone to make sense of things for them, they don't want to pay for it and as you know the old methods of subsidy (advertising) have largely evaporated.

    Defining the problem out of existence seems to be the favoured solution of some of the more annoying new news gurus.

    Have you read this CJR essay about the "future of news" hucksters (particularly Jeff Jarvis)? Covers some of this same territory.

  2. Thanks Anonymous. Will read that. Jarvis has been singing the same song for years, without ever providing any insight into what a sustainable business model might be.

    The ABC program I linked to above contains a couple of speakers (the NineMSN guy being the most objectionable), who typify the 'dancing on your grave' attitude of the more mindless end of digital media acolytes.

    You go back on this blog for the past two years and you'll see that I've consistently said people need to stop getting hung up on the technology and focus instead on the quality of the journalism.

    Sooner or later a new business model will emerge (it took the music industry at least a decade), but the end result will be smaller professional media organisations and the end of one-size-fits-all outlets.

  3. (Same anon as before.)

    I think you're right about the endgame. Existing specialist media outlets show there is a viable business model if you can identify your (paying) audience with enough precision and deliver a high quality product.

    Unlike social media, where Facebook's share price is testament to how difficult it is to make commercially viable.

    In the end it could be that the closest things left to large-scale media organisations are the finance wires, which right now are able to charge for fairly broad coverage.

    It's going to be a rough several years getting there and of course there's the other issue of informing the non-paying general public...