Who Will Write Tomorrow’s Papers?

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Glorious times of journalism: Malcolm W. Browne's story behind the photo he took of a Buddhist monk's self-immolation, in 1964, was one of the major revelations about the Vietnam war.

We live in a period when the journalistic need to praise one’s own industry is supported by Hollywood movies. The Post, which just came out in the movie theaters, is a prime example. I will be glad to go and see this movie considering how much I enjoyed Spotlight, the popularly-awarded movie about the investigative team at the Boston Globe. Added to the Hollywood’s journalism canon, with All The President’s Men and Citizen Kane, the picture of what journalism likes about itself becomes clear. But these movies are similar to the movies that continue to show us the battles and illuminate the personal struggles of WWII; a genre is born. This piece is about what you do not see in the movies. It is about an industry that is changing as quickly as the world spins.

Is journalism dead? The crisis of the industry began with the interminable development of the web sometime in 2002 and, by 2008, for the first time, more Americans reported getting their national and international news from the internet than from newspapers. For the last decade, the media has announced the death of the printed press, the advancing march of digitalization, whilst attempting to create its own life raft with the build-up of new platforms and, of course, the intense search for a successful and miraculous business model that will bring truth-telling back into the margins of profit.

Very few news organizations made it, and the majority of them are still agonizing. A recent Atlantic Media report for the concluding year is written in the fonts of disaster, with the word apocalypse in the headline:

Newspaper sales per capita peaked before color television was a thing, and magazines have been in decline since the Clinton administration. When it comes to the finances of the Fourth Estate, bad news is, generally speaking, the news.

But 2017 has been a uniquely miserable year in the media business, in which venerable publications and fledging sites, divided by audience age and editorial style, have been united in misery. At Vanity Fair, the editorial budget faces a 30 percent cut. At The New York Times, advertising revenue is down $20 million annually after nine months. Oath, the offspring of Yahoo and AOL’s union, is shedding more than 500 positions as it strains to fit inside of its Verizon conglomerate. Meanwhile, almost every digital publisher seems to be struggling, selling, or soliciting, whether it’s the media company IAC exploring offers to offload The Daily Beast, Fusion Media Group offering a minority stake in The Onion and former Gawker Media sites, or Mashable selling for a fifth of its former valuation. So many media companies in 2017 have reoriented their budgets around the production of videos that the so-called “pivot to video” has become an industry joke. Today, the pivot seems less like a business strategy and more like end-of-life estate planning.

According to the Atlantic, the end is near. In reality, the magazine’s piece says nothing new but scans a situation that has been known for some time. If you prefer a more optimistic tone, then you should read the trusting Columbia Journalism Review and its list of journalistic achievements in the past year. There are quite a few remarkable pieces of journalism, evidently sponsored by the Trumpian era, that managed to pull journalists out of the lethargy that might’ve consumed them if not for the president’s attacking, insulting contempt for the fourth estate. The amount of talent and professionalism by some parts of the press is exhilarating. But, as I said, the CJR points out singular achievements and does not talk about the general situation of the industry.

But the biggest blow that is to hit journalism will be ten times worse than its lack of advertising revenue, or the digitalization that has already caused a massacre among the already impoverished journalist class. Instead, it’s the robotization of journalism that will be the final calamity, writes

If the ongoing demise of newspaper readerships was not enough to persuade prospective journalists to pick an alternative career, there’s more bad news in the offing from America: computer-generated stories.

Google has invested £622,000 in a Reporters and Data and Robots (RADAR) scheme in Britain, through the Press Association (PA) which has already started to produce computer-generated news stories.

This involves increasingly sophisticated Artificial Intelligence Natural Language Generation software which processes information and transforms it into news copy by scanning data, selecting an article template from a range of preprogrammed options, then adding specific details such as place names.

Whoever fears the destiny of journalism does not yet comprehend the general direction in which this world spins. Whatever the future might be, it is human, belonging to we who altered it from the moment we bent science and technology in the interest of explaining our existence on this planet. It was with the embrace of Rene Descartes and Baruch Spinoza that we hopped on the fast train of reason and, four hundred years after, reached into outer space on the Voyager and Juno, reflecting on our meager existence.

We could not reach these places without science, computers and, more recently, artificial intelligence. And yet, with all those means, and 6,000 years of civilization, we still do not know the exact origin of the planet we occupy, nor are we able to measure the Universe, it’s size being distant millions, billions of years from our knowledge. It is only with the recent super telescopes, the Voyager and Juno, that exploration has allowed us to grasp the sheer eternity of the dark matter surrounding us–and also after we were able to watch the collision of the neutron-stars, its possibility. Our planet, and therefore ourselves, may not be totally Earthly creatures.

However, my point is: whatever we complain about, protest against, long for or desire, it must be done with perspective. When it comes to journalism my perspective is the following: I was born in its house, where my grandparents subscribed to one paper and my parents later subscribed to another one. I remember the hour the postman would bring the paper to my grandmother’s house and the early morning delivery at my parents’ house. I still recall some of the stories I read in both papers, and I still remember the smell of both of them. My first awareness of the world’s continents and realities did not come from history books but from the newspapers on the doorstep. Much later, when I was working as a journalist, the internet arrived, and I put the printed papers on the side. It’s has been almost ten years now that I do not buy or read the printed paper because they are if I want them, available on the net.

The possibility of connecting the dots, and bridging pieces of information into more complete stories is still exciting, yet the robots knocking on the door will alter the destiny of digital news similarly to how digitalization altered print; progress has its downside. These last ten years have been full of innumerable and incredible technological advancements that brought us to new crossroads. We could never face our existence barehanded, and now we rely on technology to further our search. And it is not just about the journalism. Every industry or service on this planet is losing jobs that will never come back; robots to replace the journalist, distant drones to replace Air Force pilots, AI to replace drivers. You can picture how the future looks. It is no wonder that pieces like “The Meaning of life in a world without work,” published recently by the Guardian, are starting to appear. Journalists need to hurry before they lose the battle against algorithms.

Before this happens, there is more work to do. The Conversation decided to defy the robot’s challenge with an argument for human superiority: “Imagine computer-generated coverage of the forthcoming royal wedding. Would we be treated to a blow-by-blow account of the guests’ outfits? Who sat with whom and who wasn’t on the guest list? Of course not: the story would focus on numbers, historical statistics, and not much else. And when it comes to big, serious, in-depth stories, bots would not be able to assimilate or reflect the kind of nuance and complexity involved in investigative journalism.”

The assumption here is that no matter what, computers and robots will never be able to provide the slyness, subtlety, and analysis that are the privileges of the human mind. I have no idea if this is true if one day an AI will not be able to compute these ethical and social standards, or perhaps our lives will become so predictable that we will no longer need these qualities. However, I find that the argument of the superiority of human nature, and therefore its fallibility, does not pay back. It is similar to the argument of liberals of being smarter than conservatives and then losing the election. There is no space for ideology in these kinds of issues; once we’ve accepted the bots–computer programs that talk like humans and learn constantly–you have to presume that sooner or later they too will be able to write philosophical tractates!

In the meantime, we can still have some fun. As Sarah Kessler, the deputy editor of Quartz, which develops its own bot programs to replace journalists, explains:

There are some computer programs that write newspaper articles, but typically they work on articles that wouldn’t be written by human reporters. These are stories that, even when written by humans, are already structured like a game of Mad Libs. Most of them wouldn’t be written at all if they weren’t written by robots. For a human with limited capacity, it makes more sense to focus on stories that seem particularly interesting to a wide group of people rather than try to cover every single earnings report or athletic event.

According to Kessler, the bots in journalism are good for transcribing data. Never say never, but putting together a story based on information from sources rather than transcription isn’t something that programs for automating news writing currently do well. What computers are good at is checking, helping to ensure journalists don’t miss anything glaring in the black and white. A great example is ProPublica’s use of machine learning to detect what’s unique of interest to individual members of Congress. A human would have a hard time detecting those nuances from hundreds of thousands of press releases.

And what can automation not replace? Great writing; rich storytelling; journalistic ethics; sorting fact from fiction; knowing truth from misinformation. For now.

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