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Google's Richard Gingras on journalism innovation, the value of trust, and the creativity renaissance

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World News Publishing Focus
Your Guide to the Changing Media Landscape

Google's Richard Gingras on journalism innovation, the value of trust, and the creativity renaissance

The new media ecosystem borne of the internet is by far the most open communications environment in the history of civilization. Our cultures now have the potential to support freedom of the press as never before. Anyone and everyone can publicly express themselves to the entire world or the world that matters to them.

Such open public expression can happen because there are NO gatekeepers -­­ except where governments take restrictive action. Unfortunately such restrictions happen more often than any of us would like whether it's blocking YouTube in Turkey, or arresting bloggers in Egypt. Sadly but assuredly, populations around the world will continue to suffer threats to an open internet. And governments will often use fear as a motivating force to convince their populations that such restrictions are necessary and proper.

I am Spartacus

I learned the lesson of the fragility of free expression from my father-­in-­law’s experience fighting the politics of fear during the “Red scare” period of the 1950’s. He was a Hollywood screenwriter. His name was Dalton Trumbo. He wrote many great films: Roman Holiday, Exodus, Spartacus. In the 1940’s he was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood. But in October of 1947 he was called before a committee of the US Congress and asked the following question: “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” He refused to answer that question on First Amendment principles, was cited for contempt of Congress, found guilty, spent a year in prison, and was blacklisted. For the next dozen years he was relegated to writing scripts under assumed names for small amounts of money. For me it’s a lifelong reminder of how a government’s constitutional principles regarding free and open expression can crumble ­­ even in an apparently “advanced” democracy. By the way, it was Dalton Trumbo who penned the phrase “I am Spartacus” that has evolved into a meme template. "Je suis Charlie!"

The open internet changes everything 

The open internet will challenge us. It will generate a cacophony of voices and a fragmentation of audiences. It will challenge our understanding of the economics of information. It will challenge our incumbent institutions who will want to go back in time to a "golden age" they remember - which may or may not have been so golden. I assume we are here because we care deeply about the evolution of the media ecosystem and specifically the evolution of journalism. I also believe we are here because, despite the challenges such dramatic change presents, we are excited by the opportunities for innovation, because we realize we are experiencing a renaissance in media creativity.

The Internet changes every dimension of the media model. First, more news and information is being consumed by more people than ever before. There are now nearly 1.75 billion smartphone users and that number is expected to exceed 2 billion by 2016. We twitch with stolen glances at the screens in our palms, or, as wearable devices evolve, attached to our faces, our wrists, our clothes.

Social networks and search engines have taken the place of newsstands. Media is no longer just a part of our lives. It has become the very fabric of our lives. We now maintain many of our relationships entirely in the virtual world. We don’t just consume media, we live “within the media". The Internet changed our relationship with media. We are not just consumers, we are producers. Indeed, we all have the ability to be journalists and publishers ­­ and millions have seized that opportunity, whether they, or we, think of it as “journalism” or not. And today’s news consumers are no longer the passive audience respectfully absorbing what the high priests of mainstream media want to tell them. They direct their own media experiences. They pick the voices they want to listen to, some mainstream, many not. They contribute, they share, they comment, they push back.

From Craigslist, to Salon, to HuffPo. From a million blogs to a billion social posts. From a standpoint of democratic free press principles, would anyone really want to flip back the clock on the advent of the Internet? All-­things-­to-­all-people portals have become far less relevant as the Web has matured and spawned thousands of media products focused on nearly as many niche audiences. Many traditional media companies are beginning to recognize this by launching sites and apps that are focussed on targeted markets.

A new business model for new times: building knowledge utilities

Given these dramatic changes, the very definition of a media product and it's attendant business model require fresh thinking as well. Too often I sense the Internet is seen as an extension of past markets rather than a new market in and unto itself ­­ a new marketplace that requires a rethinking of any existing product. One can find lessons in other media environments as they evolved. Each environment, whether new media forms like radio and television or new ecosystems like cable or satellite delivery, spawned unique product configurations and unique brands.

I would also suggest that another large opportunity for new products will come from the potential of data journalism - analyzing massive data sets, exploring public sources of data. Such efforts will have, indeed must have, a major role in the future of journalism, even more so if we embrace a shift in thinking about journalistic form and function. Can media organizations leverage data journalism to not only help with stories but to build persistent, automated information services that live on and on? To build what I think of as “knowledge utilities.” The potential is huge. Here’s one interesting and intentionally esoteric example. Three years ago ProPublica launched a deep investigation of the practices and performance of dialysis treatment centers in the US. As part of this effort, they built and maintained, the Dialysis Tracker, a potentially life­saving tool that allows patients to locate dialysis treatment centres and assess their comparative medical performance ­­ from costs to morbidity rates.

Such approaches to creating “knowledge utilities” can provide immense value to audiences, and often, for comparatively modest ongoing cost. In many cases, knowledge utilities can have their own successful business models - a shift from a “here today, gone tomorrow” editorial approach to a “knowledge utility” approach ­­ providing ongoing value from expensively produced content that would otherwise have been dropped into the archive, or what many newsrooms refer to as the “morgue” which is where content goes to die.

Trust us, we're journalists

Yes, today’s digital media ecosystem is massive and varied and chaotic. Whether we like it or not, fact-­based journalism competes with everything from raucous opinion to corporate advocacy on a near­ equal footing. That very fact suggests both the opportunity and the responsibility to rethink the very architecture of the news article such that excellent fact­based reporting can rise above the maelstrom of public expression. It’s an ecosystem that challenges the underpinnings of the old “trust” model of “Trust us because we’re us!” Trust us because we are The New York Times. Trust us because we are Le Monde.

Over the past few months, a collective industry effort has begun to form called the Trust Project Coalition. Led by Sally Lehrman of the Markkula Center for Ethics, it includes news organizations from across Europe, the US, and beyond. From Al Jazeera to Zeit. The effort pursues the following questions, both big and small: How might we help our readers divine fact and fiction, distinguish between wisdom from spin? Or are we simply giving in to the chaos and hoping that somehow our voice, our brand will magically rise above it? Can we provide better signals, more points of information to help a reader make more informed decisions? To help search engines better understand and rank results? To help the myriad algorithmic systems and recommendations systems that mould our media lives?

Leveraging the value of editing, peer review and verification

Last fall, I sat down with a talented young reporter by the name of Adam Ellick, the multimedia New York Times journalist who did the original documentary on Malala Yousafzai. He told me he had recently finished a three-­month reporting effort about ISIS and his piece had just completed several weeks of extensive internal vetting with editors and lawyers. He was pleased that it would be published the next day but he also noted with melancholy that his work would likely be rewritten and republished by many others. When a reporter like Adam talks me through the deep vetting that his or her piece went through before the publish button was pushed, I ask, “Why doesn’t the reader know that?”

In an ecosystem where we consume content based on the social recommendations of our friends, why don’t we know of the professional peer endorsements that back the reporter’s work? In a news ecosystem where any enterprising story is followed by an explosive cloud of derivative work, might we learn the backstory that this reporter was on the ground in Pakistan and not desk­bound and constrained to the range of a mouse pad? Might we embrace the practices of academia, and even Wikipedia, and make better use of structured citations to show the underpinnings of a reporter’s fact­-based efforts? We don’t suggest such architectural rethinking is a panacea. We believe that news organizations can and should be “loud and proud” about why they ­­The New York Times, or La Stampa or Pro Publica or Le Figaro ­­deserve to rise above the maelstrom and get the attention and respect they deserve.

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Author

Julie Posetti's picture

Julie Posetti

Date

2015-03-30 13:03

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The World Editors Forum is the organisation within the World Association of Newspapers devoted to newspaper editors worldwide. The Editors Weblog (www.editorsweblog.org), launched in January 2004, is a WEF initiative designed to facilitate the diffusion of information relevant to newspapers and their editors.


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