I have a yes-but relationship with Emily Bell. I say yes to most every brilliant thing she says but sometimes am foolish enough to add a but.
Go read Emily’s important speech on journalism’s relationship to technology and its masters in Silicon Valley. I will say yes to her argument that algorithms that determine distribution spring from editorial decisions. I will say yes to her concerns about the implications of those formulae for journalism and an informed society. I couldn’t agree more with her endorsement of Zeynep Tufecki’s brilliant exploration of the issues surrounding open v. filtered communication for news: It’s Twitter’s openness, its immunity from gatekeepers either algorithmic or editorial, that allowed news from Ferguson to emerge online before it emerged on the news. It’s Twitter’s openness that also makes it a Petri dish for trolls, harassers, and terrorist beheading videos. I say yes to Emily’s reminder that the platforms we’re discussing are still very new; the Jell-O is still warm and formative.
But I would remind readers that it was technology that freed journalism from its bondage to media moguls and corporations. Who’s to say that our corporations were better than their corporations? We have Murdoch. They have Uber.
I would remind us all that the craft of journalism and the business of news have had 20 years — an entire generation — since the introduction of the commercial web to understand that they should be about more than manufacturing content to fill products and messages to feed to a public that didn’t necessarily ask for them. We have had 20 years to learn to serve people as individuals with relevance and value as Google does; and serve communities with tools to gather, share, and interact as Facebook does; and serve advertisers with greater efficiency as both of them do. And we didn’t. Can we yet learn to create our own technology? We’re not so young as Silicon Valley. Based on our miserable performance thus far, I have my doubts.
I strongly agree with Emily that there must be a discussion about the ethics and principles of the algorithms that distribute, filter, and thus shape the information that cascades over us, now that everyone can publish and share. But my first reflex is not always to build our own; see the prior two paragraphs. My first reflex is to help Silicon Valley define evil and good. As journalists we have a role in sparking and informing discussion of issues that matter to society; that’s our skill, no? I agree with Emily that this is an issue that matters. So let us start there.
Emily and I were both at a — I choke at the label — unconference at Arizona State’s journalism school last week called #Newsgeist. It was convened by the Knight Foundation (which funds both of our work) and Google. I jumped at the chance to join a discussion that I and others had proposed, asking: What could Google do for news? There were many suggestions around the distribution — the embedding — of news in containers that news creators can control and benefit from; around advertising and data; around security.
I now wish that Emily had raised and I’d have seconded a suggestion to convene a discussion with Google, Facebook, Twitter, et al to grapple with the issues she as well as Zeynep and others raise about the ethical issues presented by both filters and openness.
I would remind us all that just because we in the news business used to control the entire chain of news — from deciding what was news to deciding how to cover it to writing the stories to packaging those stories to manufacturing their container to distributing the container to setting prices for both readers and the advertisers who subsidized us — there’s nothing to say that we can or should continue to maintain that vertical hegemony. The web demands and rewards specialization. We now work in ecosystems that demand and reward collaboration.
I chose to write this on Ello, which was built as a protest against Facebook’s power. Bravo for that. But we know that no one will discover it there. I have but one follower, the one who invited me at my request to join the platform. I will tweet this. I will share it on Facebook. I will add it to Google Plus. I will link to it on LinkedIn. (I repost it here.) I will hope for the kindness of friends and strangers to pass it on. They, our public — not an editable algorithm — are the real gatekeepers now. What I have to say will resonate or not depending on whether anyone thinks this falling tree is worth listening to. An algorithm may or may not help that along. That is our circumstance.
I won’t discourage any journalist from building technology — I encourage many of my entrepreneurial students to gather teams with technologists to do just that. But I am not ready to pin my hopes for the future of journalism on the unicorn much sought after and PowerPointed at #Newsgeist: the elusive hack-hacker, the programmer-journalist.
I am certainly not willing to pin my hopes on government regulation. I’ll soon have an essay published in Germany in which I take my journalistic colleagues there to task for running to government to attack Google et al because they could not reimagine their craft and business in our new circumstance, bringing forth an avalanche of unintended consequences: bad regulation, bad law, bad precedent. But I also take Google to task for not doing more to rethink the task and responsibility of informing society.
I agree with Emily that we must report, report, and report with the skepticism many — especially the technology press — have let slip away. I’m worried about the journalists who have criticized Buzzfeed’s Ben Smith for reporting on Uber’s idea to perform opposition research on PandoDaily’s Sarah Lacy. I’m worried about the journalists who criticized the Guardian for reporting on Whisper’s — not to mention the NSA’s — dubious doings. The critics fear that Buzzfeed and the Guardian will ruin it for the rest of them — that is, cut off their access to technology’s powerful. The new inside-the-Beltway is the inside-the-101-and-280. What’s insidious in both is journalists’ desire to be inside.
But skepticism need not beget cynicism. I can well be accused of being too optimistic about technology and its makers. I do that to counteract what I see as the Luddite reflex of too many in my field — I’ll link to that German essay when it is published — to attack technologists as the enemy because they ruined the business for us. I think there is a chance to work together. I think we need to.
As a journalist and now an educator my response to the issues Emily raises has been to convene discussions with Silicon Valley about its responsibilities — not to us journalists but to the public we both seek to serve.