Thanks to a partnership with the Google News Initiative, each organization in the first cohort will receive a $15,000 stipend to help create the capacity for the founders to get started. In addition, the GNI has funded their first year of membership dues in the Collective and LION Publishers.
The projects range from an organization covering education news in part of Orange County, California, to an outlet with the wonderful name Black by God, which seeks “to share perspectives that cultivate, curate, and elevate Black voices from West Virginia.”
The Tiny News Collective strikes me as a more interesting approach to dealing with the local news crisis than initiatives unveiled recently by Substack and Facebook. Those require you to set up shop on their platforms. By contrast, the Tiny News Collective is aimed at helping community journalism entrepreneurs to achieve sustainability on their own rather than become cogs in someone else’s machine.
I’ll admit that I was more than a little skeptical when the Knight Foundation announced last week that it would award $3 million in grants to help local news organizations use artificial intelligence. My first reaction was that dousing the cash with gasoline and tossing a match would be just as effective.
But then I started thinking about how AI has enhanced my own work as a journalist. For instance, just a few years ago I had two unappetizing choices after I recorded an interview: transcribing it myself or sending it out to an actual human being to do the work at considerable expense. Now I use an automated system, based on AI, that does a decent job at a fraction of the cost.
Or consider Google, whose search engine makes use of AI. At one time, I’d have to travel to Beacon Hill if I wanted to look up state and local campaign finance records — and then pore through them by hand, taking notes or making photocopies as long as the quarters held out. These days I can search for “Massachusetts campaign finance reports” and have what I need in a few seconds.
Given that local journalism is in crisis, what’s not to like about the idea of helping community news organizations develop the tools they need to automate more of what they do?
Well, a few things, in fact.
Foremost among the downsides is the use of AI to produce robot-written news stories. Such a system has been in use at The Washington Post for several years to produce reports about high school football. Input a box score and out comes a story that looks more or less like an actual person wrote it. Some news organizations are doing the same with financial data. It sounds innocuous enough given that much of this work would probably go undone if it couldn’t be automated. But let’s curb our enthusiasm.
Patrick White, a journalism professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal, sounded this unrealistically hopeful note in a piece for The Conversation about a year ago: “Artificial intelligence is not there to replace journalists or eliminate jobs.” According to one estimate cited by White, AI would have only a minimal effect on newsroom employment and would “reorient editors and journalists towards value-added content: long-form journalism, feature interviews, analysis, data-driven journalism and investigative journalism.”
Uh, Professor White, let me introduce you to the two most bottom line-obsessed newspaper publishers in the United States — Alden Global Capital and Gannett. If they could, they’d unleash the algorithms to cover everything up to and including city council meetings, mayoral speeches and development proposals. And if they could figure out how to program the robots to write human-interest stories and investigative reports, well, they’d do that too.
Another danger AI poses is that it can track scrolling and clicking patterns to personalize a news report. Over time, for instance, your Boston Globe would look different from mine. Remember the “Daily Me,” an early experiment in individualized news popularized by MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte? That didn’t quite come to pass. But it’s becoming increasingly feasible, and it represents one more step away from a common culture and a common set of facts, potentially adding another layer to the polarization that’s tearing us apart.
“Personalization of news … puts the public record at risk,” according to a report published in 2017 by Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. “When everyone sees a different version of a story, there is no authoritative version to cite. The internet has also made it possible to remove content from the web, which may not be archived anywhere. There is no guarantee that what you see will be what everyone sees — or that it will be there in the future.”
Of course, AI has also made journalism better — and not just for transcribing interviews or Googling public records. As the Tow Center report also points out, AI makes it possible for investigative reporters to sift through thousands of records to find patterns, instances of wrongdoing or trends.
The Knight Foundation, in its press release announcing the grant, held out the promise that AI could reduce costs on the business side of news organizations — a crucial goal given how financially strapped most of them are. The $3 million will go to The Associated Press, Columbia University, the NYC Media Lab and the Partnership on AI. Under the terms of the grant, the four organizations will work together on projects such as training local journalists, developing revenue strategies and studying the ethical use of AI. It all sounds eminently worthy.
But there are always unintended consequences. The highly skilled people whom I used to pay to transcribe my interviews no longer have those jobs. High school students who might have gotten an opportunity to write up the exploits of their sports teams for a few bucks have been deprived of a chance at an early connection with news — an experience that might have turned them into paying customers or even journalists when they got older.
And local news, much of which is already produced at distant outposts, some of them overseas, is about to become that much more impersonal and removed from the communities they serve.
We believe these stereotypes even though they are supported by precious little in the way of evidence. In at least one of those categories, we now have some countervailing data. According to a new study by the Knight Foundation, millennials are regular news consumers who rely on journalism for information, entertainment, and guidance on how to vote.
The survey of 1,660 young adults “shows that 88 percent of people ages 18-34 access news at least weekly, including 53 percent who do so every day,” according to the Knight report. Interestingly, Hispanics and African Americans were somewhat less likely to engage with the news than whites, but were “more likely to share news with friends on social media.” Twitter habits differed by ethnic group as well: “Forty percent of young African American adults get news on Twitter at least once a week, compared to 27 percent of Hispanics and 26 percent of whites.”
I’ve been teaching young adults for the past 15 years, and the Knight findings confirm what I’ve seen. Young people care deeply about the news. But the way they define and consume it is quite different compared to my generation.
Remember Marshall McLuhan’s famous maxim that “the medium is the message.” When those of us who grew up with newspapers read journalism on our phones, we might retain some of our pre-digital ways of thinking — oh yeah, if this were the paper, what I’m reading now would be the editorial page. But for young adults who never read a print newspaper, the digital experience is everything. They don’t draw those kinds of analogies, and they accept the mobile environment for what it is: a source of infinite news and information that they have to sort through.
Granted, I teach mainly journalism students, whose interest in the news is more intense than that of other young adults. Still, I have a few observations that I think are applicable to digital natives of all backgrounds:
• Young people are dubious about “the news” as a curated package. Rather than seeing news as a compilation of international, national, and local information that they need to keep up with on a daily basis, younger news consumers tend to dive deeply into a few areas that interest them. They don’t see the digital environment as disaggregated because for them it was never aggregated. They do their own aggregation, making themselves well informed on a few topics.
• Quality is as important to millennials as it is to older generations.Studies show that older people are more likely to believe and share fake news than younger people. If we’re going to offer classes in media literacy, they are needed at the senior center every bit as much as they are in middle school — maybe more so. Perhaps that’s because older news consumers have a reverence for anything that appears in print (or even in digital text), whereas millennials grew up knowing that they have to be their own fact-checkers. In my experience, young adults are intensely concerned about quality, and they know how to separate the good stuff from the garbage.
• Millennials are unlikely to develop brand loyalty in their media habits. National newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal are experiencing some success in charging for digital subscriptions, as are a few regional papers like the Los Angeles Times and The Boston Globe. Long-term, though, those papers may be leaving millennials behind, since they’re not going to want to restrict themselves to a few titles they pay for. We need new ideas, such as subscriptions that include a wide range of news sources, or the ability to pay for that day’s digital paper. Single-copy sales were a staple of the newspaper business for generations; they need to make the leap to the way we consume news today.
The Knight Foundation study, conducted by the NORC research institute at the University of Chicago, also found that young people regard the media as being highly biased — even sources they use regularly. They also worry that the media are harming democracy and national unity. African Americans and Hispanics said that news sources did not portray them accurately. No particular media outlets are mentioned in the report. But it does show that millennials are well aware that the country is in crisis, and that the media are too often part of the problem rather than part of the solution.
All of which shows that we older people ought to welcome our millennial overlords. We can only hope that they’ll show up on Election Day. Sadly, that is one area in which they thoroughly deserve their dismal reputation. Perhaps that will change in 2020.
In the final semester we would work assiduously to place the story with a well-respected media outlet. Poker isn’t poker without money, and journalism isn’t journalism without readers. Since we mostly acquire the craft in a newsroom, we figured we’d bring the newsroom into the university. So far, and to our great pleasure, reality has followed the blueprint.
In the spirit of marrying education to editorial, this week we launched a partnership with Esquire magazine. The goal is to create both a physical and virtual research and development lab for digital storytelling. Online platforms have recently delivered a cornucopia of long-form journalism, but we’re still in the messy — a.k.a. totally awesome — phase of experimentation. Most of the current experimentation will fade away without a trace. But some of it will stick.
Esquire and Media Innovation decided to approach the subject from three directions:
StoryLab, a full-semester course taught at Northeastern’s School of Journalism beginning in spring 2015, in which students will work with Esquire writers and editors to reimagine both classic and new Esquire stories for the digital age.
Storybench.org, a news site that offers an “under the hood” look at the latest and most inventive examples of digital creativity — from data-visualization projects to interactive documentaries — as well as the tools and innovation behind them.
StoryChallenge, an annual new-media storytelling competition, launching in October 2015, which will challenge journalists to reinvent the way magazine stories are told.
These projects serve a few highly pragmatic purposes. As one of the nation’s most prestigious venues for literary journalism, Esquire has a great interest in the future of that form. As educators, we’re doing our best to prepare journalism students to enter a workforce that expects creativity and a collaborative imagination as much as shoe leather reporting.
Recently we had Jay Lauf — the founding president and publisher of the business news site Quartz — speak to our students. Like Vice and BuzzFeed, Quartz is growing fast and hiring accordingly. I’m so accustomed to journalism’s famine mentality I assumed they were getting inundated with talented candidates.
That’s not the case. “We are getting swamped with résumés,” Jay says, “but not always with qualified candidates.” Jay defines these as journalists who may have a base-level fluency in programming but, more important, they can demonstrate an easy facility with numbers and data and social media. In fact, the various digital journalism ventures in New York, Jay says, are battling it out for the few journalists that fit the new mold.
There’s another mission threading throughout these efforts: How do you train journalists for jobs that don’t exist yet? One way, we figured, was to try to invent those jobs here. We’re not going to do that by stroking our chins in Aristotelian reflection. We’re going to do it by doing it. There have to be readers at the end of the process, and real sources and real stories. Poker ain’t poker if you’re not using real money. Journalism ain’t journalism unless the stakes are real. And that’s what these Esquire partnerships bring to the table.
Jeff Howe is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University. This post was previously published at the Knight Blog.
Last week I had a chance to sit down with Josh Stearns to talk about his new job as director of the Journalism and Sustainability Project at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Dodge has received a two-year, $2 million grant from the Knight Foundation to study new ways of paying for local journalism, with an emphasis on civic engagement.
After a long stint as policy director of Free Press, whose headquarters was just a bike ride away, Stearns is now commuting from Western Massachusetts to New Jersey, where the hyperlocal sites he is working with are located. We talked on July 15 at his home in Easthampton.
Like a stock market crash, disruption creates its own brand of delusion. I remember spending an afternoon sipping iced tea in the Beverly Hills backyard of a seasoned music executive. It was 2003. Revenues from CDs had cratered, and the labels couldn’t figure out a way to compete with free. Panic was in the air, but not here. “The music business is booming,” he said. “It’s the recording industry that’s [in trouble].” Propelled by new distribution channels and cheap-but-powerful audio editing software, more musicians were reaching more audiences than any previous time in history. The delusion, of course, was conflating business with creation.
So it is with storytelling. Making money off journalism has become more difficult, but finding passionate audiences for true stories well told has never been easier, or more exciting. Journalists have access to more information, more tools, more mediums and more venues than our predecessors could have ever imagined.
At Northeastern University, we’re changing journalism education to reflect this new reality. The plain truth is that the skills journalists need lie outside the traditional curriculum of journalism. An interdisciplinary grad program isn’t just an option; it’s a necessity. In September, thanks to the support of Knight Foundation, we will launch the Media Innovation Program. We have one goal: to retrain storytellers for the 21st century, whether that means teaching them Web design, social media, data visualization or game theory. We can do this because Northeastern hosts some of the finest instructors in all these fields.
Here’s how the media innovation track program will work for the master’s in journalism: Students attend for three semesters. Before classes begin they will work closely with advisers within the journalism school to propose theproject that they will develop throughout their tenure in the Media Innovation Program. Students will identify one domain — the concentration — of study outside journalism, be that business or programming or videography. The majority of his or her classes will take place inside this department. Once a week they will come together in the seminar, an intensive course led by one of our top-notch digital practitioners that helps individual students apply their new skills to their project. In the last semester we will work closely with each student and our publishing partners to place their projects with outlets such as The New York Times, NPR, ProPublica or The Boston Globe.
The early response to the program has been tremendous. When I presented a rough sketch of our ideas at the Future of News conference in December 2012, representatives from several major media outlets said they would be interested in hiring the program’s graduates. However, the Media Innovation Program isn’t just an opportunity for journalists to develop skills that will enhance their work and increase their value to traditional news organizations and new media venues; it’s also a way for the School of Journalism to expand its networks and create deep, meaningful connections with other academic departments and news outlets in Boston and worldwide. We’ve already started offering courses in collaboration with the Art + Design program at Northeastern, as well as Laura and Chris Amico of Homicide Watch. We’re also looking forward to partnerships with organizations such as the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern University School of Law.
Our goal with the Media Innovation Program is to empower journalists to think creatively about the future of the news, and provide the tools they need to realize their goals. At the same time, we hope to create a laboratory space that existing organizations can use to explore new ideas and new approaches to journalism. We’re at the beginning of our journey, but we’re excited about the road ahead.
More: The Boston Globe’s BetaBoston site covers the Media Innovation Program here.
Jeff Howe is an assistant professor of journalism at Northeastern University and director of the Media Innovation Program.
Among the odder aspects of Howard Kurtz’s very bad week (as reported by Michael Calderone of the Huffington Post) is the revelation that Daily Download, the thoroughly mediocre (at best) website with which Kurtz is more or less associated, received a $230,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, which funds innovative journalism projects. Here’s a Knight press release from March 2012.
Now, it’s certainly true that not all of Knight’s investments are going to work out, and that some of them will prove embarrassing. But it’s notable that Tom Stites, founder of the Banyan Project, a well-publicized effort to create a replicable new business model for community journalism based on co-op ownership, reports that Banyan’s Knight News Challenge applications have been turned down twice. (Banyan’s pilot site, Haverhill Matters, is due to be unveiled later this year.)
In February, Knight apologized for paying a $20,000 speaking fee to Jonah Lehrer, a so-called journalist who was hoping to revive his once-celebrated career after he’d been exposed as a plagiarist and a fabricator.
Knight does a lot of great work, so I hope Knight officials will step forward and explain their decision to fund Daily Download.
As for Kurtz, he enjoyed a long and impressive career before running into some serious bouts of carelessness during the past few years. I hope he’s able to bounce back. Earlier this evening he tweeted: “I just want to thank those who have posted or sent kind words and supportive comments in recent days. It means a lot when times are tough.”
Photo (cc) by David Shankbone and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.