At SXSW a session that caught a lot of attention was with the CEO of Upworthy, Eli Pariser, on the future of Journalism. He said some astounding things including the fact that, on news “algorithms are now more powerful than editors”. What he meant was not only the fact that algorithms now determine what news you are likely to receive but also, incredibly, how that news is written.
Algorithmic news delivery
With so many news sources online, from Facebook, Twitter, Google and lots of other news specific sites, like Upworthy, what news you see is now likely to have been preselected for you by algorithms that get to know what you want and aggregate data to make decisions about what people like you want. An ensemble of algorithms, invisible but potent, determine what you’re fed. This may sound frightening but some argue that this is far better than the self-selected editorial class responsible for what you see on TV news and newspapers. Any editorial process is subject to bias, inherent in the editorial group. Algorithms, arguably, can be designed to be more objective. Sure, it shifts the bias from editors to algorithm designers but at least there’s continuous improvement.
News junkies have never had it better
With 24 hour news channels and continuous feeds on the web “news junkies have never had it better”. If anything it’s a matter of realtime, editorial aggregation from multiple online sources.
Upworthy has 50-60 million users a months and is now more powerful than a lot of the most powerful editors in traditional media. Their key metrics have moved from unique visitors and page views to what they call “attention minutes” based on importance, satisfaction and quality. But the guerilla on the online news front is still Facebook. They can choose to tweak their algorithms to attack any competitor, as they have such a massive audience. Whatever the outcome, there is no doubt that news is now data and data can be mined, repurposed, repackaged and delivered on a massive scale.
Algorithmic news production
More shocking is the fact that news is already being written by algorithmic software. Stats Monkey took baseball data and statistical models, one of the most data-driven sports on the planet, mined that data for key plays and players, then hauled in weather reports and strung it together into a factual report of the game. They added narrative arcs and styles, so that these stories had an angle – convincing win leading from the start, come from behind to win, to and fro to narrow win and so on. They could be written as straight reports, more humerous, from one side or the other. Quotes can be pulled in to make it seem as if it is written by a real journalist. You can even choose different narrative styles aimed at different audiences. The project came out of a joint effort by Medill School of Journalism and the McCormick School of Engineering at Northwestern University through the Center for Innovation in Technology, Media and Journalism.
Out of this came Narrative Science, with its quill product. They have moved beyond sport into financial reporting, as it is quite lucrative. The have refined and finessed the process. It’s software mines the data, gets the facts, determines the angles, builds the structure and polishes the narrative. It’s often hard to tell whether the piece was written by a person or machine and the pieces can be syndicated out.
News and learning
Interesting stuff and it makes one wonder whether the same process can’t be used for knowledge. Currently, as a teacher or learner, you have to curate your own content, that comes in lumps of pre-set media – Wikipedia articles, papers, YouTube videos, images, graphics, diagrams, photographs. Imagine a software programme that searches, finds, filters and reconstructs knowledge , personalised for your own needs. We have, at present, algorithmic software that delivers software based on ensembles of algorithms that understand who you are and what you need next on your learning journey. The next step is to automate the build of the content itself.
Things are moving fast. In news we’ve gone from a fixed time, once a day newspaper or TV news programme, delivered in real time, to rolling news on TV, to web delivered news and now algorithm determined delivery of that news, even algorithmic software that produces news stories. As this gets better, it may well be the case that the news delivered by software has such good market intelligence from its instantaneous data mining that it is, by definition, better than a human writer. We may even see smart narrative arcs and styles that are beyond that of the standard hack. As Eli Pariser says, he fully expects “a piece of software to win the ‘Pulitzer Prize’”.