Journalistic Innovation

A lot of technological innovation has followed the same pattern.

A given good or service starts its life as Home Production. This is what it sounds like: people making things for themselves, in their homes. This is how virtually all things were created prior to the industrial revolution. The blacksmith had a forge in his house, you went there if you needed a tool. The weaver’s cottage was the cottage they lived in. This is not a very efficient process. It takes tons and tons of time, and tons and tons of resources, but it requires virtually no upfront investment. When a new innovation is born, nobody really knows if it will be valuable, and nobody is willing to invest in it. Interested people engage in home production if they want it. Eventually, if enough people do this, a viable market is formed.

After the innovation grows out of home production, it transitions to Industrial Production. This is the industrial revolution. Mass production, replaceable parts, conveyor belts. Standardized products. The industrialist takes the various quirks from the various home producers, distills them down to a platonic ideal of what that thing is, and efficiently optimizes for producing that at scale. During the process, they learn a lot. What elements can be taken away without affecting the core of the product. What elements need to be added to make it work. Issues with production at scale. Bugs to work out. Everything.

Eventually, through a combination of market saturation and technological progress, the price of this good drops lower and lower and lower. A threshold is hit where it is cheap enough to produce customized goods at scale. The learnings from industrial production can be applied, learning which rules you can break to innovate, learning what fundamentals you need to keep to make it work. Empowered by these learnings, customized goods can be professionally produced for everyone. This is Modern Production.

The invention of bread is probably the best toy example of this. Five hundred years ago, most people baked their own bread, either at their home or via a community bakery. There was no quality control, no standardization. No two loaves were the same. They were expensive and labour intensive to manufacture.

Industrialization led to the invention of sliced bread. Industrial scale food production collected learnings from a large swath of independent bakers, and distilled bread down to it’s platonic ideal: uniformly shaped, sliced, white bread. We produced this at scale, and soon everyone was eating the exact same bread. It wasn’t great. But it was good enough.

Eventually we became so good at producing bread that it became cost-effective to professionally produce a large assortment of different breads. Now, bread lives in the modern production stage, and I can buy a dozen different kinds at Pirate Joe’s, for less than one hour’s minimum wage.


A while back I was listening to (I think) an episode of Planet Money, and they were talking about the history of journalism. They claimed that it arose out of privately funded market research.

In the age of sail, wealthy merchants had business dealings across all the major European capitals, and they made their fortunes on the stock market. Perhaps one businessman wished to stake his fortune on French crepes. As a responsible investor, he wanted to make sure he was making wise investments, so he did market research. This research was often ad hoc, done as it could be. He might pay a traveller headed to Paris to mail him when she got there, telling him the latest Parisian gossip about crepes. In this way, he learned about market trends and was able to make very profitable trades.

These travellers, it was argued, were the first journalists, and their journalism was home production. It was ad hoc, of relatively poor quality, inconsistent, and personal.

Eventually, as society became larger and richer, and more and more people held interest on far off places, these travellers professionalized into what we now know as journalists. They set up standards and practices for how to do journalism “right”. Reporting stopped being a purely regional thing, as large media empires were formed. It lasted this way up until recently, with well understood, precisely-controlled, standardized news delivered to us from the news factories. This was the age of industrial news production. Until the internet happened.

When Twitter, Facebook, and various other social networks popped up, the news industry changed dramatically. By far the biggest difference was a massive reduction in cost. As we’re all journalists now, the marginal cost of producing journalism is zero. Hey look, I’m doing it right here, right now! How much did you all pay me? Exactly.

This marked the transition of news into modern production. We have heard a lot about how print is dying, social media has turned journalism into a slave wage meat grinder, clickbait in service of ads is a necessity. But the flip side, as always: the falling cost of news production makes new doors open. A hundred years of official reporting processes and standards have been understood. We know what parts of news production are essential, what parts can be modified, and what can be thrown away. We know how to make foundations of news cheaply, so we can build all manner of customizations on top. We know how to privately produce customized, professional news.

A friend of mine grokked the implications of this, though he didn’t realize it at first. In the week after the US election, he pointed out something interesting. He said: so campaigns have their own private pollsters, as well as relying on the mainstream media. The mainstream media was disastrously wrong in their predictions. But, presumably, Trump’s pollsters knew what was really going on, since they leveraged it. We can never know this for sure, we can only guess. But consider the full implications of this: One guy, paying for his own private news source, was able to get more truthful, reliable, and actionable news information than the entire journalism industry combined. Modern production.


There are a lot of people who have strong interests in truthful, reliable, actionable news. Per the NPR (iirc) story, it was originally driven by direct economic pressures. As journalism industrialized, plenty of people looked to publications like the New York Times to inform them on very important social, political, and economic concerns. But what has happened now that everyone can commission their own private news?

There’s been a lot of talk about “fake news” recently. The extremely grim implications of the fact that the authorities were able to manufacture consent for severe censorship and propaganda programs over the span of a month, I’ll touch on some other time. Right now, I’m more interested in understanding this phenomenon.

I’ve spoken at length about things like this for years, ever since I found out that journalism is unethical. To me, this is no surprise, but consider why this has happened: people do not care if news is true.

This may seem strange, as everyone thinks they care about truth. The truth is, few do. In most circumstances, truth does not matter. I read a news article about a random pizzeria that won’t cater a gay wedding (I will use this example until I die), it does not matter to me whether that story is true. Why? Because I’ll never know. This story is completely inactionable to me, it’s set in a place I will never be. The only interaction between this story and my life will be when I read it. So if it’s effect on my life is unfalsifiable, is it even valid to call it true at all?

We used to enjoy true, accurate media, because some people relied on that media to inform high-stakes decisions. But if news is now in modern production, if it is viable for people to get individualized professional information on the things they need, then there is no more incentive for the mainstream media to be accurate. The people who care about those things get it elsewhere.

Take me for example. I stopped proactively reading the news about a year ago, checking out specific articles only when they were personally (not algorithmically, not via a share button) sent to me. And yet I am often more informed about current events than the people around me. Why? Twitter and police scanners. I have a police scanner app on my phone, configured to alert me when any scanner in North America sees a sudden spike in traffic. Whenever I get pinged, I know immediately that Something Newsworthy happened. Further, I have a primary source: police dialogue. This signals me to hop on to Twitter, where eyewitness accounts (complete with photos and video) are everywhere. By the time the mainstream news media even realizes there is an Event, I can already write the report.

So the question is: if I don’t need to rely on said media to give me a truthful reporting of the events, if I have better, faster, cheaper, more personalized sources, then why would they bother investing so much effort in true, reliable reporting? They won’t. They’ll give people what they want, and people want panem et circensesNews becomes entertainment, as the pressures for accuracy go elsewhere.

So this is my prediction for the future: “Fake news” is here to stay, and will only get worse. The prestigious mainstream media institutions are on a long, slow decline into irrelevance. Forevermore, news will become less and less relevant. But paradoxically, it will become easier and easier for individuals to get reliable, true, accurate, actionable information in ways that are cheap, easy, and plentiful. It just won’t be through the Cathedral.

I imagine a future where information sources specialize. Instead of going to The News to learn relevant information, I will contact a market research specialist for economic info. A political analyst for political news. A specialist for every source, available to all.

In other words: Wesearchr. It’s gonna be yuge.

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About Simon Penner

Injecting compassion and humanity into political discussion. Disagreements welcome, but you must be kind and charitable.
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17 Responses to Journalistic Innovation

  1. Loki says:

    Which police scanner app do you use that has the capability of alerting on traffic spikes?

    Like

    • John says:

      Simon links it right there in the article. Mind, I haven’t tried it out myself yet, though I certainly plan to.

      Reminds me of reading about a military intelligence analyst who wrote some simple code that alerted him to geographically-based twitter spikes, and then provided a (translated) list of what words were being tweeted, ranked by occurrence. As imagined, he was well ahead of the traditional news in being alerted to current events.

      Like

    • virtualadept says:

      Scanner Radio Pro does it. I have a custom intelligent agent network (Cherrybomb) that does the same thing using online scanners.

      Like

  2. Sidney Carton says:

    So what can a middle-aged, mid-career journalist do to remain employable over the long term? (Asking for a friend, natch)

    Like

    • I can think of a couple of more approaches, but I’m not sure any of this is commercially viable.

      – Decent data-driven journalism about internet culture… piercing the veil of individual filter bubbles and opaque communities, actually providing trustworthy metrics on the size, shape and motivations of the things people do when you can no longer see them doing it. Utility: reveal what is hidden or only known by private monolithic entities like Facebook or Google.

      – Source-only journalism. Given a story or a topic, do the research to provide the most salient thoughts and writings that already exist from all sides, and bundle them in a way that is accessible and comprehensible. Utility: save people the tediousness of digging for distantly connected topics and ideas.

      – Long-view journalism. Refuse to cover topics of any recency and aim to filter to only what is still relevant a year later, then cover the hell out of it through serious analysis and extrapolation, comparing to what has actually transpired in the mean time, and how opinions and policies have changed. Utility: make recent history comprehensible to adults out of school.

      – Journalism on journalism. Now that the pretense of objectivity is lost, an important question is “why is X writing about Y in outlet Z at time T”. Tracing the origin and spread of particular stories, revealing the game of telephone and the social graph it operates on, using it to distinguish planted and artificial narratives from organic spread and genuine sentiment. Utility: industry watchdog against corruption (in a sense, this is what deepfreeze.it is a prototype of).

      – Meta-news studies, the wider view of the previous, comparing different sides and biases in existing outlets over their output as a whole, helping people form an understanding of prevailing dogma, ideological allegiances and willingness to favor reality over argument, contrasting between different communities and even countries. Utility: egregorology for the masses.

      The other part of this is that as the news has moved online, the media has lost control of their own means of production: only the biggest outlets control their own infrastructure and platform, while everyone else is stuck publishing glorified blogs inside a frame covered with other people’s ads and social media buttons. Taking back control should be a priority for those wanting to distinguish themselves, as is proficiency of the web as a medium (which is related to but not the same as technological expertise).

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    • Simon Penner says:

      I don’t think that anyone will ever have a reasonable guarantee of consistent stable employment over the long term. I’m not a good person to ask on this. Better at pointing problems out than solving them

      Like

  3. L33tminion says:

    But, presumably, Trump’s pollsters knew what was really going on, since they leveraged it.

    The Trump campaign certainly identified a strategy that could work, but that doesn’t mean their internal polling gave them better evidence than publicly-released polling that it would work. It seems plausible to me from the campaign’s rhetoric pre-election that they were expecting a loss right up until election day.

    Like

    • Simon Penner says:

      I actually agree with this.

      But I liked my friend’s idea, and thought it was worth expanding. It was the jumping off point

      Like

    • virtualadept says:

      When you don’t think you have anything to lose, you may as well throw the kitchen sink at it. Desperation strategies, while ugly, sometimes work.

      “When it’s 50/50, the odds are in your favor.”

      Like

  4. Jacob says:

    A quick glance at WeSearchr shows that people there aren’t super-interested in true information either. They’ve already made a decision, and want supporting evidence (editors picks are all “expose this” and “get proof of that”).

    Like

  5. Solutions that need technical understanding or take time to use are dangerous. Many people do not understand as much as they think they do, or do not have the time to exercise due diligence.

    I don’t know how to filter Twitter for Geographical hot spots, and what about the info that never gets onto Twitter?

    Like

    • virtualadept says:

      Filtering Twitter streams based upon geography is a pretty straightforward task – you can filter on geotags (a lot of people don’t bother turning them off), on Twitter clients’ language setting (and cluster tweets based upon this), and upon hashtag. A combination of all three seems to work the best.
      As for stuff that never makes it onto Twitter, it’s much the same as stuff that doesn’t make it onto television: For most people it functionally never happened.

      Like

  6. Thanks for this. So just as background, you could fairly call me a member of the journalism establishment. I teach computational journalism at Columbia, and used to be an AP editor. But before all that I was an outsider, and I’ve long asked many of the same questions of journalism that you’re asking here. In particular, I wondered whether social media made journalism obsolete.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the answer is no. Yes, you knew I’d say that, but let me explain. I truly think it’s fantastic that millions (billions?) more people are writing and sharing information. But it’s not quite the same as having professional journalists working, and here are some reasons why.

    Reliability: Yes, anyone might write an article about, say, a protest or a bomb or what congress talked about (any of us can watch that on CSPAN.) But a journalist definitely will write that article, because it’s their job. There can be something really useful and important about that. Think of journalism as a service (“coverage”) rather than a good (“an article.”)

    Verification: believe it or not, reporters are very careful about what they publish. Sure, you can follow the Syrian war by watching what comes out of there on Instagram. But that war is also an information war. News organizations have evolved processes for vetting this type of information. (See for example http://verificationhandbook.com/.) Individual people are under no obligation to verify before sharing, and often lack the resources to do so. For example the AP verification policy includes the step “check with language experts” to get accurate translations and ensure dialects and idiom usage support what the content claims to be. Since the AP has staff in over 100 countries, they can do this internally.

    Reporting: when I started working in journalism I discovered that this word has a special technical meaning. It doesn’t mean not “writing” or “producing journalism.” It’s “gathering facts.” There is a tendency to believe that pretty much everything worth knowing is now online. Geeks especially like to believe this — and I came from this view too, as a computer scientist more used to thinking about search engines. But it’s simply not true. A huge amount of what journalists do is obtaining access to private data sources or (gasp!) even calling people. It also involves things that anyone could do in principle but almost no one actually does, like filing FOIA requests or reading through the 10,000 pages you get back (and I spent five years of my life building document mining software to make that easier: https://github.com/overview/overview-server) Consider how often the primary online source for some fact ends up being a news report.

    So it’s not that journalists are somehow special people, smarter than the plebes or something. It’s that this work is their job, and they have the institutional backing to do it.

    Finally, let’s talk about quality. There’s a widespread belief that the quality of reporting has declined. Best data I can find says error rate (at least, as measured a certain way) has been stable throughout the 20th century (http://jonathanstray.com/measuring-and-increasing-accuracy-in-journalism) But I will say that two things are definitely true: trust in media has declined to all time lows, with the fall starting in the 1970s (http://pressthink.org/2012/04/rosens-trust-puzzler-what-explains-falling-confidence-in-the-press/). And the economics of online advertising means that ad supported news organizations need to produce a TON of junk content to pay for the good stuff, which is quite expensive to produce. Here’s where people outside of journalism can help find a better model for content, and I like what Medium is trying to do (https://medium.com/@SeanBlanda/medium-and-the-reason-you-cant-stand-the-news-anymore-c98068fec3f8)

    I also agree that most people don’t really care about the truth. Everyone says that they want “just the facts” reporting, but metrics say otherwise. I worked at the AP, so I was trained how to do a “straight” news report, and you know what? It’s boring. It’s unsatisfying. We all want meaning attached to our facts. We all want context. And there has been a corresponding shift from reporting events to explaining events, starting in the 1950s or even earlier (http://www.niemanlab.org/2013/05/objectivity-and-the-decades-long-shift-from-just-the-facts-to-what-does-it-mean/)

    But it is true — has been true for a long time — that you get what you pay for. And if you want better news, you can get it. The “trade press” is largely invisible, employs a huge number of journalists and produces high-quality information on just about any topic. Or buy a subscription to the NYT or WSJ or wherever.

    But while there is certainly a lot of junk being published, I think it’s a grave mistake to imagine that there is some magic way to do much better on the core reporting. Every intelligence agency, whether public or private, relies heavily on news reports. Journalism is a very competitive business; if it were easy or cheap to do significantly better, journalists would have done it long ago.

    Like

    • Sam J. says:

      I think buggy whip makers will never go out of business. I mean sure you drive a car and whipping the car won’t do anything but the satisfaction. The pure satisfaction of wielding that buggy whip can’t be beat.

      Like

  7. Pingback: The Failure of the Fourth Estate | The Failure of the Fourth Estate

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