Tuesday, March 10, 2015

What does "Big Silicon" mean for journalism and j-schools?

There's been a lot written lately about "robots" (i.e., computers) writing news stories, be it routine earnings report at the AP or routine sports stories. The latest reflection on this, in the N.Y. Times, prompted a colleague to pose the question on a Facebook group: "What does robojournalism mean for j-schools and the people that love them?"

If we cut through the somewhat visceral reactions these stories tend to invoke, what is happening can actually provide the sort of clarity we need to examine the state of affairs by making us truly assess what journalism is versus "news" and what has been the reality of the industrial process in which it has operated.

Here are two responses I posted:

It means we have to stop doing the rote stuff and actually think -- constantly -- about how what we're teaching fits into the constantly developing ecosystem. Unfortunately, that is difficult in institutions that on one hand say they value innovation and change -- when it comes to research -- but value stasis more in the curriculum.

One other thought on this. This does not mean the death of journalism. At its heart, journalism will always be a cottage industry -- it relies on one journalist having a relationship with individual sources to extract useful information, detect patterns, supply context and advance knowledge. Much as the financial folks would like it to -- and much to their consternation -- that heart won't change. But that does leave the question of what is "journalism" and what is "news." "News" is largely processing, taking what is in the open already and processing it for presentation over whatever form. That's an industrial process. Every industrial process strives to replace labor with capital. That is what is happening here.

So as we look at the "journalism" landscape, it's good to keep that distinction in mind. No computer is going to duplicate Sy Hersh's work on My Lai, for just one example. Or Jim Risen's on national security.

What it means, however, is that journalism has become a creative business, much like art or acting. And our students have to understand that. Going out and covering a news conference, processing it and putting it on the air, online or in the paper, is a job that will be automated as much as possible. Covering a game and writing rote ledes (such as the second example in the Times' story), will be automated as much as possible.

This also means our students have to understand they will be treated as actors are -- responsible for their own training and continued preparation. (Ever known someone to go to an audition and the director to say: "Hey, we'll hire you. Now let us send you to acting school."?) And they are much more likely to be part of the "gig economy," not salary men (or women).

The clinker in all this for me is that the economics have been that the "news" part of the business has tended to subsidize the journalism part of it. It's also provided a lot of jobs. So as journalism is distilled in the new economic order, will we have the infrastructure (legal, distribution, economic) to support journalism? As other institutions (business, government) get stronger and the Fourth Estate atomizes, is it even possible to develop that kind of infrastructure in an atomized information society? Put another way, would the Pentagon Papers be published today, given the large actual cost and potentially enormous legal and other costs that could have been extracted? For all there is to criticize about them, the large journalism institutions had the reserves -- when they chose to use them. It's a useful litmus question to ask ourselves from time to time.

Jay Bender poses the question well in a different form (larger S.C. papers in the background helping smaller ones) in his oral history for the S.C. Press Association. I also recommend the Tow Center's report on post-industrial journalism.

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