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Journalism in the age of algorithms, platforms and newsfeeds

Remember how simple life used to be? It didn’t seem that long ago when we got up in the morning, grabbed a cup of coffee and sat down to discover what happened in our communities overnight – all of it curated by editors of the printed newspapers delivered to our doorsteps rain or shine.  

Sadly, for legacy publishers hoping for a resurgence of the gold old days of print, those days are over. Only 5 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds often get news from a printed newspaper. The 48 per cent that gravitate towards print (i.e. those 65 and older) are a dying breed.

Sure, there will be a niche audience that will continue to go through the nostalgic daily reading ritual, but they will not be fully engaged in today’s hyper-connected world – a world where people spend more time looking down at that shiny new thing in their hands than at the people around them. It’s no wonder that on my recent visit to Hong Kong, I noted a new addition to all of their travellators and escalators: signs that prompt the mobile-savvy population to keep their eyes off of their smartphones and look up.

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But those who think this planet is heading towards digital depravation of our youth, and that every step forward is three steps back, are wrong.  

Today’s digital natives have the whole world at their fingertips. They aren’t limited by the perimeters of the printed page and they’re not controlled by the often-biased content mainstream media deems important.  

The physical world we live in is limited by what we can see, feel and hear. The world through the 3D lens of internet and mobile technologies is one we can “experience” -  full of discovery, amazement and hope.

Technology’s awakening of wonder has spawned a generation of inquiring minds - non-conformists who question more than acquiesce, explore more than ignore, experiment rather than play it safe and participate more than just observe.  And probably the most notable of all characteristics these new world citizens share is that they are less trusting of others than any other generation before them.

Take a look at the financial sector…

Numerous studies have shown that GenYs and Zs are more likely to trust an algorithm (aka Robo-Advisor) than a financial expert with their money.  They are so distrustful of financial institutions that 71 per cent say they would rather go to the dentist than a bank.  Ouch!

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The narrative looks even more dire for the future of media because Gen Zs are even less trustful of media than millennials who used to hold the record for having the most sensitive BS meter.

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But our youth’s loss of faith in the Fourth Estate doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in quality journalism.

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News still plays a big part of their online activity; they just don’t discover it in all the old places.  

They find it where algorithms, as opposed to (or, perhaps, in addition to) editors, serve their need for connecting with others through content – content that is created by both users and the media.   

The role of algorithms in Journalism

It is the job of content curation algorithms to show people what’s relevant to them. And if Facebook’s latest tweak to give priority to personally-informative stories and posts shared by friends and family over traditional publishing, it’s been made abundantly clear that what’s relevant to users isn’t what media authorities think. 

But newsfeed algorithms are only as good as their architects. Here are just a few we encounter on a regular basis, each with their unique curation of media for news consumers. 

Facebook – LIKEs to fool around

When one thinks of newsfeed algorithms, Facebook is probably the first company that comes to mind because it has been notorious in its “tweaking” of its algorithm since it launched its newsfeed in 2006. I would even suggest that they are also the most infamous algorithm designers on the web today.  

For those brands who have been burned by their bait-and-switch tactics, you know what I mean. For years, brands invested millions of dollars creating pages on Facebook to grow their fans.  Suddenly all their work was for naught as Facebook decided that the fan base was at the point where it needed to be monetised – not for the brands’ benefit, but for Facebook’s alone.  

With a click of a keyboard, Facebook reduced the reach of page posts to a mere 1-2 per cent of a brand’s fans. To expand the reach, brands needed to start paying the piper.  

Fool me once - shame on Facebook.

Once Facebook got brands used to the no-free-ride reality, the next thing the company needed to do was grow content. So Zuckerberg made an offer that publishers couldn’t refuse, “Put your content on our site and we’ll share it with readers and help drive traffic to your websites. Use Instant Articles to post full content articles and we’ll share advertising revenue with you.” 

I am still rather shocked by the naïveté of news executives and their blind trust in the proven-to-be untrustworthy. In June 2016 the bottom fell out when Facebook started ranking publisher content less than that of users.  That didn’t surprise me in the least. What did surprise me was the media execs who accused Facebook of robbery.  

Fool me twice - shame on us!

Brands fed Facebook advertising revenues while publishers donated their “paid content” for free and now they are yelling, “Foul!”.  Oh and let’s not forget the millions of participatory readers publishers drove away from their digital properties to share comments and opinions on social media. It’s no wonder the social giant’s net revenue last quarter topped US$2B while publishers’ tanked.  

Facebook is a brilliant architect of algorithms so if there was one piece of advice I could give to publishers, it would be this, “Don’t be fooled again!”

Google – The keeper of search secrets

Every year, Google updates its search algorithm hundreds of times. It happens so often that most changes go unnoticed. Famous for changing search laws under the covers and announcing them later, the ruler of rule changes has created fear, uncertainty and more fear in the hearts of SEO managers.

But in terms of what it means for publishers, it’s an ongoing battle to keep referrals coming from search. Earlier this year, Google started punishing what it considered to be “old” content.  Branded and high-volume keywords (e.g. Netflix, millennials, etc.) which once drove massive traffic to trusted publications resulted in invisibility for brands that used them because they were suddenly considered to be outdated or instigators of clickbait.

I’m not against algorithm changes to improve user experience, but it would be nice if Google gave us the carrot first - a heads up on rule changes before they took effect so we could learn and act in accordance with what’s now good with Google. Give us the chance to avoid the stick of reduced visibility and revenues when we break rules we didn’t even know about.

Twitter – The news breaker

Although Twitter has been around almost as long as Facebook, it’s been much slower in altering its newsfeed algorithm. It did redesign its UI on many occasions with stream options like Activity, Discover and Mentions and their “while you were away” feature, and now it allows slightly more content in a tweet,  but it wasn’t until the spring of 2016 that it followed in the footsteps of Facebook by replacing its reversed chronologically-ordered timeline with an algorithmically-powered “best tweets first” queue.

However, unlike Facebook, the new default algorithm can be turned off (for now).  It’s most likely due to the fact that Twitter has become the de facto standard for breaking news and emergency communications where the order of the posts is critical.

Snapchat – The inventor of impermanence

Perhaps the hottest social network on the planet today, the “now you see it - now you don’t” platform is where publishers with younger audiences strive to be – so much so that they are willing to pay to play in Snapchat’s Discover through guaranteed advertising minimums. 

What’s hard to wrap one’s head around is the fact that traffic is a one-way street from publishers to Snapchat. Snapchat never links back to a publisher’s website. It feels more like old-style broadcast TV than interactive social – totally contrary to what one might think is needed to be successful in digital distribution. But it seems to be working for publishers like Cosmopolitan.  

In June 2016 Snapchat joined “who has the best army of algorithm architects” with its overhaul of its Discover algorithm, allowing users to subscribe to channels and putting more focus on content than on media brands. Some say this move has led to more clickbait content and loss of brand affinity, while others see it as a new frictionless discovery mechanism that will drive more casual users to stories they might not otherwise have read. I’d say they’re both right.

The US$16B-valued darling of Fidelity also launched a new advertising API in July, followed up with behavioural targeting which is expected to roll out in Q3 this year. 

All these changes seem to be a sign of even more as the newly rebranded Snap Inc. prepares to head down the path to an IPO. It’s already surpassed Twitter in terms of active users and expects to hit US$300M this year in revenue, so one can’t help but think it won’t be long in coming

I can see why magazines high in visuals want to be on Snapchat, but the question still remains in my mind, “What’s really in it for newspapers in the long term?”

Instagram – Facebook’s Mini-Me

Like Twitter, this instant photo-sharing app is not so “instant” anymore. In March 2016 it started “optimising” timelines based on users’ relationships and interests, not time. Unlike Twitter (and just like Facebook), there is no way to revert back to the old chronological feed.  

In July 2016, Instagram launched its Stories feature in what some call a feeble attempt to steal eyeballs from Snapchat.  Early results would indicate that it will not succeed any more than Facebook’s attempt to dethrone Snapchat with Poke, Slingshot and Bolt.

Again, the draw for magazines is somewhat clear, but I don’t get the value proposition for newspapers. Do you? 

PressReader – Curator by the Crowd

In addition to full-content replicas of publications PressReader automates its home feed of freemium news to ensure that readers get easy access to their favourite media brands and the content that feed their passions, whether they love technology, sports, fashion, and, yes, even knitting.

But, it also includes in a user’s home feed the latest articles that have retained the interest of other readers the longest. This delivers not only all the content readers want, it provides frictionless discovery of new quality content they might otherwise never see if the algorithm relied purely on their individual behaviours.

The good, the bad and the ugly of algorithms

Algorithms aren’t going away because they add value in terms efficiencies in the newsroom and user experience in newsfeeds. But with all the good they provide, there are some gotchas.

The Good

We live in a world that is increasingly becoming more automated. Many of today’s newsrooms including The New York Times, Forbes and ProPublica to name a few, are already using algorithms to help journalists produce articles on business, sports, safety and education.  

Google Trends uses its analysis of search terms to show publishers what’s trending in near real time across various regions of the world.  

Even the Associated Press is using robot reporters to cover minor league baseball.

The Bad

So, yes, algorithms have their plusses, but should we trust them?  

Algorithms are only as accurate as the data which drives them. And if the data is inherently biased, misinterpreted or incomplete, the results could be anything from comical to catastrophic. Just check out the embarrassing results of Facebook’s recent automation of trending topics. Even with the stockpile of analytics accumulated from its 1.7B users, the largest social network in the world still can’t accurately report what’s trending in media without human intervention.

The Ugly

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study in 2015 that concluded that “Users [on Facebook] tend to aggregate in communities of interest, which causes reinforcement and fosters confirmation bias, segregation, and polarisation. This comes at the expense of the quality of the information and leads to proliferation of biased narratives fomented by unsubstantiated rumours, mistrust, and paranoia.”

No mincing of words there!

There needs to be a fine balance between giving people what they say they want, or appear to want according to behavioural analytics, and giving them what they might want or need if given the opportunity to discover. This has been one of the arguments journalists have been saying for years and I think most rational people would agree with them. I certainly do.

Journalism in 2020

As data becomes more reliable, algorithms will become more accurate and useful to readers, businesses and publishers. But, can they make us narrow-minded? Yes, if we let them control us. Can they open our eyes to new possibilities and educate us? Yes, if we’re open to receiving them.

Algorithms are still in their infancy in terms of content creation and distribution, but they are popping up everywhere. Commodity news in finance and sports are natural choices for robot journalism given their emphasis on numbers and statistics (e.g. earnings per share or runs batted in).

But by 2020 algorithms will become a much more fundamental part of the entire publishing value chain from concept through to research, news gathering, writing, recording, editing, publishing, distribution and marketing.   

Through sophisticated data-mining and machine-learning technologies and the ability to interpret natural language, algorithms will evolve from just being data-driven to being linguistically-driven. At that point, it might be very hard to tell if the author of an article is a human being or a computer.

Kristian Hammond, cofounder of Narrative Sciences, a company that transforms data into narratives people read for a number of publications, believes that 90 per cent of news content could be written with little or no human intervention by the mid-2020s. He also shocked more than a few people when he said that a computer would win a Pulitzer Prize within the next five years. 

Now I’m not sure I’m quite as optimistic about the quality of a robo-reporter’s work, but I have no doubt that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will infiltrate journalism and publishing in a major way within the next few years.

Where does that leave those who live and breathe by their physical and mental labours – those overworked and underpaid members of the press that bleed ink, sweat and tears to deliver the investigative journalism we not only crave, we need?

Many hope that they will be liberated by technology that removes the mundane from their profession.  It reminds me of what Leonard Brody, author of The Great Rewrite said to me earlier this year about AI and the future of media, “There's going to be a lot of AI in journalistic activity. But we’re also going to see a renaissance of traditional journalism because it, and the dialogue it creates, are incredibly important.”

I strongly believe in the need for high calibre news content and journalism’s role in a safe and prosperous democracy. But that doesn’t mean technology and society can’t work in tandem to bring forth a new age where AI, drones, citizens and professionals collaborate to create and deliver accurate, unbiased, quality content that would be missed by all of us if it were gone.

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