By Jeff Jarvis
We’ve barely begun to reinvent news and media.
Just as books remained true to their scribal roots for decades after the invention of printing (it was at first called automated writing), so today do books, magazines, and newspapers remain recognizable as such even in their web, tablet, and mobile forms. Technology provides so many new opportunities we’ve yet to explore.
That’s why the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY commissioned Nicholas Diakopoulos — a Ph.D. in computer science with experience in journalism — to map the unexplored opportunities in technology as it relates to news. (View Nick’s paper on Scribd or download as a PDF.)
What resulted was not only a white paper cataloging relevant technologies and research but also an ideation exercise — a game we’ll call AHA! The Ideation Game for Journalism Innovation — to help both journalism students (especially of the entrepreneurial bent) and news organizations imagine new technology-inspired products and services. Tow-Knight will make the game available to journalism schools and media companies. Diakopoulos and CUNY have also proposed a session where participants can experience the exercise at the upcoming Online News Association conference (vote for it here).
To organize his research, Diakopoulos identified 27 computing concepts, among them: social computing, mobile and ubiquitous computing, wearable computing, information visualization, virtual and augmented reality, game engines, robotics, natural language processing, machine learning and translation, speech and activity recognition, and data mining.
Next, to set the context for exploration, he identified news consumers’ needs (staying informed, personal identity, social interaction, entertainment); journalistic goals (subsets of seeking truth, serving the public interest, and informing the public); and what he calls value-added information processes (e.g., information design, filtering, summarization, currency, reliability).
Diakopoulos made a grid with the computing concepts across one axis and the rest across the other and then he looked at available research to see where exploration has been done and where it hasn’t been done. There lie the opportunities. For instance, for all of the talk of the press as fourth estate, there’s little research that’s been done to use anything high tech to improve watchdogging or accountability reporting. And other important journalistic goals, like forum organizing, have also gotten little attention. Part of the solution is to work more with technologists (and not just programmers) to help translate these exciting and challenging problems.
He then turned this research methodology into an exercise to get us to move past mapping and into generating new opportunities. Three participants in a brainstorming group pick three cards against the four categories above, matching a technology to two needs. Then they have five minutes to think of as many applications as possible. They do this four times. We have tested the exercise with students and professionals and so far they have all come away impressed with what new ideas they could imagine: Computer vision to summarize emotional reactions to a speech by analyzing faces in the crowd? Could work. Using teams of robots to act out key sports plays or patterns? Sounds … entertaining? The exercise is meant to expand participants’ sense of possibility.
I believe that news organizations still think too incrementally. They aren’t being disruptive—even revolutionary—enough. They need to break the form of news—the article as their atomic unit—because they can. They need to imagine and experiment with new ways to serve their publics. They need to ask what business they are really in.
Gawker recently mocked one news organization that called employees together for open-ended brainstorming. I sympathize with the news organization’s desire to encourage new thinking and change its culture. I also understand Gawker’s skepticism, for I’ve sat through exercises in which participants propose ideas that tend to cluster around the banal on one end or the impossible on the other. We need to get down to reality.
That is what Diakopoulos tries to do by constraining brainstorming to his taxonomy of 27 computing concepts, by making that the starting line. Note that he and his exercise do not try to solve for business models. That should certainly be the next phase in exploring any ideas that come out of this exercise in ideation. But too many constraints could limit the imagination. This research and this exercise are about exploring technology and its opportunities.
In Diakopoulos’ paper, I particularly liked his notion that journalists and programmers—hacks and hackers—share the fundamental task of adding value to information. Articles do it. Algorithms do it. Thus some of the functions of journalism can now be performed by either people or computers. “It’s unlikely in the near-term that automated systems will fully replace people,” Diakopoulos writes, to the sure relief of reporters and editors, “but there are many opportunities for using technology to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of these processes as they are guided by people.”
“Efficiency and effectiveness.” In there lie new models that will help journalism make the transition to digital with lower costs, richer service, and greater profitability.
We’re in process of producing the game for distribution to interested journalism schools and media professionals. To get one, please sign up here. Supply will be limited.