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Watch Live: A First Amendment For Social Platforms

On June 23, 2016, BuzzFeed and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism will host a breakfast discussion on the power of social media platforms and the threat to free press and free speech standards.

As journalists, news organizations and citizens increasingly turn to social platforms as their principal means of publishing, are there enough safeguards against tech giants misusing their new power?

BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith and BuzzFeed Assistant General Counsel Nabiha Syed recently authored an article which put the case for a First Amendment for social platforms: “We are suggesting that the platforms make a public commitment not just to opaque and ad hoc rules, but to time-honored principles and process.”

As BuzzFeed takes on the platforms, join us for a panel discussion at Columbia Journalism School:

Ben Smith, BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief

Nabiha Syed, BuzzFeed Assistant General Counsel

Stuart Karle, William J. Brennan Jr. Visiting Professor of First Amendment Issues at Columbia Journalism School

Emily Bell, Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism


LIVESTREAM

livestream will begin June 23 at 9:00am ETD

Join the online conversation:

#PlatformsSpeech

Digital News in a Distributed Environment


Watch the full event above.

On June 21, the Tow Center hosted “Digital News in a Distributed Environment” at Columbia Journalism School, which featured the US launch of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s 2016 Digital News Report, as well as the release of preliminary findings from a new research project by the Tow Center examining the relationship between social platforms and publishers.

The Report, which is the largest ongoing international study about news consumption, supports what we know about the growth of smartphones and social media for finding news, but also looks below these macro trends to reveal a number of surprising results about how people consume news worldwide.

Rasmus Klein Nielsen, the Director of Research at the Institute, presented the research, which is drawn from a YouGov survey of 50,000 online users and 26 countries, as well as a series of focus groups. The presentation was then followed by a panel led by Nielsen, with Liz Heron, the executive editor of The Huffington Post; Edward Roussel, Chief Innovation Officer at Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal; Vivian Schiller, the former president and CEO of National Public Radio and now an independent strategist; and Tow’s own director Emily Bell.


The Reuters Institute Digital News Report and Panel

There is a great deal of information in the report, and texture in its geographical range, so we encourage everyone to go and look at the fact-sheets from particular countries. The full report is available here. Many of the numbers challenge industry expectations about consumer behavior—but not necessarily in a bad way. Take the figure that nine percent of English speakers pay for news. On the one hand, this number seems pretty dismal: how can an entire industry survive on nine percent? But on the other hand (as Vivian Schiller pointed out), nine percent approaches the percentage of NPR listeners who are also members—the pinnacle of a successful membership organization.

Nielsen highlighted other surprising findings. Video, in particular, did not grow as much as the industry expected. Just this month, a Facebook executive predicted that in five years, our news feeds will be entirely video. But the Report shows that readers are still resistant; 78 percent of of those sampled say they only read news or watch video occasionally.

news contentmain barriers

The Report suggests that pre-roll advertisements and the fact that it is faster to read than to watch may be contributing to this.

The other major finding in this vein was on reader trust in news and news brands. The Report finds that people like the concept of personalized news. But when they asked how that news should be personalized—through algorithms based on their news habits, through friends, or through editorial judgement of a news organization—, respondents backpedaled a bit. They prefer their own judgment first, then editorial judgment, and then their friends. But all of their approval numbers were less than 40 percent. And many people are worried about missing key information or other viewpoints.

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In addition to this, the Report finds that when readers consume news on smartphones and social media, they may simply be unaware of the news organization from which they are reading. At the same time, though, people do have a pretty good idea of which news organizations they trust, but they don’t actually know what they’re reading.

As Nielsen astutely put it, these issues amount to a PR problem for journalists. People aren’t appreciating editorial opinion about what news gets onto our feeds, but at the same time, they do have a real appreciation of brands. How does that translate into business models for news organizations, especially when adblocking is growing, video isn’t as popular as predicted, and publishers aren’t seeing returns from the platforms they are now tied to?

The panel emphasized the amount of variation in the ways in which publishers approach experimentation with social platforms and how they are trying to build a sustainable business in this new environment. The contrast  between The Wall Street Journal’s strategy and The Huffington Post’s strategy is particularly stark.

The Wall Street Journal, which has embraced digital subscriptions since the very beginning, is cultivating its relationships with social media platforms very carefully. Roussel said they see Apple News for instance, as a way to introduce a new audience to WSJ content, which they can then drive back to the WSJ site and convert to digital subscriptions. But The Wall Street Journal is picking and choosing which platforms it feels are a “natural fit” for the brand.

But of course, digital subscription models are difficult to implement, and will only be successful for a small number of brands. The Huffington Post, as a very successful digital-born brand, has embraced a strategy where they work hand in hand with a large number of social media platforms.  Their strategy is to cultivate specific audiences on specific platforms, and to tailor Huffington Post content to those audiences. They have 79 Facebook pages, for instance, about 12 of which are robust with their own specific audiences. To the question of reader trust, Heron sees their social strategy as adapting editorial judgment to the new space: “You can express your editorial judgment in other ways [besides what goes on the front page] and get kind of exciting and abstract about it, and we’re very keen to do that.”

But as Vivian Schiller emphasized, while many publishers have been quick to embrace new technology on platforms, many of these creative ways of presenting stories are experimental, risky, and have yet to pay off in terms of revenue for the publishers. Take Facebook Instant Articles as an example. Many publishers were enthusiastic about jumping into Facebook Instant Articles, but they have not seen the returns: either financial returns or the increased engagement promised for stories that load more quickly.

Or video. Video is expensive to produce, and is hard to produce consistently. If readers aren’t actually flocking to video as expected, is it worth it to put so many resources into it? Again, the panel responses differed greatly by brand. Roussel noted that video shouldn’t be made just for the sake of video: it should be additive or natural to the story being told. Heron was much more optimistic about the future being in video. Huffington Post’s strategy, again, is to know the audience, and to make platform-specific content. But they do try to limit their video production to more enduring pieces and to live coverage. And Schiller pointed out that CPMs—costs per impression—are strong for video, which isn’t true of anything else besides branded content.

The takeaway is that no one strategy will work for every organization, and the current environment requires taking a lot of risks, as new platforms and modes of distributing news keep cropping up, and consistent returns on investment have not been figured out yet.


The Tow Center’s Preliminary Research on Publishers and Platforms

Tow Center’s brand new data on publishers and platforms dovetailed with this discussion, showing the sheer amount that publishers are now relying on platforms to distribute content. Platforms are publishers, whether they like it or not, said Emily Bell.

The research is based on week’s worth of tracking several different news organizations, where they post, and how much they post on each platform. Tow also reached out to a number of social media teams at various news organizations, and a number of platforms, to understand the different experiences they’re having working with each other. The slides from the presentation are embedded below, and the new research is accompanied by analysis by Bell at Columbia Journalism Review: “Who owns the news consumer: Social media platforms or publishers?

The Tow research breaks down which publishers are using what platforms at what rate. Some publishers are posting more on platforms than they are on their own sites. BuzzFeed said 80 percent of their reach is off their own site.

 

tow-graphic
The above chart shows which social platforms a selection of publishers are using.

And they aren’t posting the same story in the same way to every platform; they now tailor their pieces—changing length, art, headline, etc.—to fit each platform. Some publishers are embracing native posts on social media platforms, such as Facebook Instant Articles, and which are driving traffic back to their own site. The Washington Post is now sharing the vast majority of their stories on Instant Articles, but The Wall Street Journal is driving most posts back to their own site.

 

graph3Each donut above shows what percentage of posts the publisher is making on social platforms are native Facebook posts (such as Instant Articles, videos, Live), as opposed to posts that link back to the publisher’s home site.


Tow also spoke with representatives from the platforms, many of whom felt that
they had a PR problem. Despite their variation, they are grouped together. And every time they change an algorithm, they get bad press.

Publishers are dying to get real metrics about how consumers on social media are interacting with their content. But many platforms are walled gardens: you have to be logged into to see any content on Snapchat, for instance. The biggest thing moving forward, apart from more research, is transparency on all sides. The platforms need to share metrics and be clearer about algorithmic changes with the publishers. But publishers also need to be transparent with each other.  One local publisher Tow spoke to expressed frustration about the uneven way the industry is moving forward:

I think the New York Times and the Washington Post did a disservice for a lot of us by jumping into bed with Facebook on Instant Articles so quickly without really scrutinizing [the deal]. It really ends up hurting us in the long haul.

And of course, readers should be informed about the support—financial or otherwise—they receive from platforms. The research suggested that some publishers were enthusiastic about working more closely  with each other to leverage power with the platforms.

We are facing the same anxieties that we did twenty years ago when news first started moving onto the web, and publishers are taking as varied approaches now as they did then. But as Liz Heron points out, there is an “appetite for collaboration” on both sides.

View the full Tow presentation below. For the full recording of the event, click here. The Reuters Institute 2016 Digital News Report is available here.

The Tow Center research team was lead by research director Claire Wardle, and research was conducted by Tow Fellows Pete Brown, Nushin Rashidian, Priyanjana Bengani, and Alex Gonclaves.

JOIN THE ONLINE CONVERSATION:
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Questions? Email towcenter@columbia.edu

You Are Here: Two Approaches to Site-Specific Storytelling

When the You Are Here team first starting talking about potential sites for our devices, we knew there were a few key features that any potential location would need to have.

Access, of course, was one of the most important: You Are Here is about the culture and experience of a particular place, so our locations needed to be ones that were freely accessible to all kinds of people, and where they could really stop and spend a while. For that same reason, we also wanted spaces with visual and physical interest: while it’s tough to find a truly boring street corner in New York, standing in one place and staring at a building facade didn’t offer the kind of interaction we were looking for; our listeners are meant to be contributors as well, so choosing sites they could actively explore was essential. Perhaps most crucially, though, we wanted to engage with spaces that had both character and community: locations that were significant to the people who used and moved through them, and even significant to the broader life of the city itself.

After discussing our options and evaluating our constraints (the devices would need both power and substantial protection from the weather), we eventually selected two iconic New York City parks: Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, and the High Line in Chelsea. We liked that while both parks met our baseline criteria, they also embodied an important contrast: Tompkins Square Park has been long been a fixture in the city’s political life – as a site of tent cities and (occasionally anarchic) political movements – while the much more recent High Line is a prime example of carefully executed and well-polished central planning. These contrasts also offered a great opportunity for us to explore distinct approaches to engaging our listeners.

Tompkins Square Park: Beyond a Bellwhether

A recent resurgence in the city’s homeless population has once again brought media attention to Tompkins Square Park, which is often treated as a bellwhether for housing issues in the city. But does homelessness really dominate the character of the park? For this piece, You Are Here team member Benjamen Walker worked with audio producer Hillary Brueck to construct a site specific audio tour of Tompkins Square using this issue as a starting point.

On the tour listeners meet current and former homeless individuals, and a local who has lived across from the park since 1988, creating a piece that that would both outlive a given news cycle but still provide listeners with an opportunity to participate in a timely conversation was a real challenge.

For everyone who works with site-specific audio, tying it to a temporal event is dangerous,” says Walker. “I feel like this was a nice challenge, and shows that it’s something that you shouldn’t just block off – especially for projects with a local community.”

Anchoring the audio to a topic like homelessness – which is temporal, but also politically charged – also required delicacy and balance.

“The challenge became how to branch out from it,” says Walker. In working with Brueck, Walker says, “I wanted her to look at the homeless issue, but not be limited by it.”

“There are so many different communities in this park, from parents to punk rockers to sun bathers. You see people with cameras – especially in the spring with the hawks.”

While it does capture many of these voices, in the end Brueck and Walker’s piece is really meant to be a jumping off point for listeners who contribute their own observations about the park, which we’re eager to hear when the installation goes live in a few weeks.

The High Line: Not Just for Tourists

On the far side of town, the High Line has been a major tourist destination since it first opened in 2009, attracting over 5 million visitors a year. Though not even a decade old it has been – and continues to be – a major influence on both the sensibility and direction of the neighborhood.

“It’s one of New York’s newest sites, and it’s gotten its reputation as being a tourist site,” says Walker. But as producer Dasha Lisitsina illustrates in her audio collage, there are “a lot of New York City residents who are drawn to this place, for reasons which are quite surprising,” says Walker.

Part of the uniqueness of the High Line is its actual topography: it is a relatively narrow walkway that stretches from Gansevoort street to west 34th street.

“Because it’s this long strip, it’s kind of hard to describe as a place,” says Walker.

To overcome the difficulty of picking a “where” within this beautiful – but ultimately transient – space, Lisitsina ultimately decided to focus on “who.”

There are not only a lot of artists and musicians who are camping out there and doing something, there are also quite a lot of New Yorkers who use it,” says Walker.

Lisitsina’s audio collage introduces listeners to artists working or performing on the High Line, as well as tourists who have come to participate and marvel. The highlight of this tour though, are the New Yorkers who all have different reasons for coming to the High Line, and embody some of the themes that emerged through the editing process.

A lot of people are looking for a place to be more contemplative in the crowd,” says Walker, which he also sees as meshing well with the audio piece itself. “If you were wearing headphones and people watching – which is what people do there – it would be kind of great,” he says.

“The other theme that I think comes out is how artists are using the space,” Walker continues. “They’re all battling for a little atmosphere to connect with audiences and not step on each other – which also feels very New York, the battle over space.”

These very New York stories are exactly what we hope to bring together through You Are Here, and we look forward to collecting and sharing more of them as our installations go live in the next few weeks. Keep an eye out for more details on the Tow website and at youarehere.network!

Making Audio Social: A New Tool From This American Life

Say you’re scrolling through Facebook or Twitter one day when you see a friend has posted about an episode of her favorite podcast. “It’s so funny,” she says, “You’ve got to check this out!”

If her post is interesting enough (and it certainly might not be—aren’t podcasts for geeks and your weird comedy friends?), you may click on the link. The link takes you to the podcast’s website, where you can stream an HOUR-LONG episode. If you do hit play on the podcast (and again, this if is a strong one), you’re subject to two minutes of ads and an intro to the show.

As this all unfolds you’re likely on the train, in line at the coffee shop, or procrastinating at work. You probably don’t have time for this hour-long podcast nonsense. You hit the back button. You never hear the show.

Compare this to how people discover video and print online—by way of little segments that are easy to share on social media, whether it be in gifs, images with captions or highlighted and screen-capped sections of text. Users can perform their fandom by spreading samples of the work they love and drawing their social network in. That’s how content goes viral: it’s how a video can garner 22 million views.

If we want audio storytelling to reach similarly wide audiences, people have to be able to sample it in the same way. We believe the fact that podcasts can’t be easily snipped and shared online is inhibiting the growth of the podcast industry. So our team has been attempting to change that.

Over the past few months, with funding from the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and the Knight Foundation Prototype Fund, This American Life has hired a team of developers and designers to solve the problem how to share audio online. We currently have a functioning prototype that allows a user to easily access the entirety of This American Life’s 20 years of content, scroll through it to find their favorite clips, convert those audio clips into beautiful, transcribed .mp4 videos, and share those videos on social media. We’ve worked hard with our UX and UI designers to make this process intuitive, fast, and fun.

We hope that if social media users are inundated with moving, funny or tragic audio snippets from our episodes shared by their friends, they will feel far more compelled to listen to our podcast. Maybe their narrow ideas about podcasts will be challenged. Maybe they will even become new fans of our show. We also hope our tool will allow listeners to meme-ify and play with audio—again, performing their fandom.

Our project will be open-source, so any podcast creator can adapt this technology to their own website and their own catalogue. We don’t just want to make it easier to share This American Life audio—we want it to be easier to share all audio.

Introducing “You Are Here”

Thanks to high-speed satellite Internet service and the ubiquity of mobile devices, journalism audiences can now be reached anywhere, any time. The effect can be transporting – and also disorienting. When the Web is everywhere, what happens to the experience of being in a particular time and place?

“You Are Here” is an experiment in using digital technologies to represent and engage truly local communities, by offering content and interaction that is only available in a particular place. Using small, inexpensive, open-source wireless routers to deliver compelling, location-specific content, “You Are Here” seeks to facilitate conversations that are informed by the character of the physical spaces where they are installed, and which, in turn, shape the lives of the people who live, work, and play there.

For the past several months, the You Are Here team has been working on bringing together the many different pieces required to make this happen: we have been building new technologies that make it simple for anyone to setup and run a web server on inexpensive hardware setup that can fit inside a breadbox.

DeviceWeb
The You Are Here web server, which can run a standalone wifi network anywhere you have an outlet.

We have also been creating audio stories that share a sampling of the issues and voices present in each of our two sites: Tompkins Square Park and the High Line. And we’ve been reaching out to local businesses and non-profits to find partners who can host our devices and help us connect with the local community that we hope will contribute to and grow the stories we’ve seeded.

In the coming weeks, we’re excited to details about where you can find You Are Here and what we’ve learned from making site-specific audio, tiny web servers and new connections. We’ll also share news about launch events and community contributions, and invite you to share your ideas about how the You Are Here technology could be used by other communities in other ways.

In the meantime, feel free to take a look at our (Internet-accessible) website at youarehere.network, and when the time comes we hope you’ll join the conversation!

YouAreHereLogoOnly

 

Report Launch: Guide to SecureDrop

By Efrat Nechushtai

On May 12, Tow Center for Digital Journalism launched Guide to SecureDrop, a research project led by Tow Fellow Charles Berret, with a panel discussion at Columbia Journalism School. The report is available to download and read at the Tow Center’s GitBook repository.

SecureDrop is a platform that enables sources to contact journalists securely and anonymously through encrypted communications. It has been dubbed “a WikiLeaks for every newsroom,” and is currently used in roughly twelve news organizations, including The Guardian, The New Yorker, ProPublica, The Washington Post and The Globe and Mail. Another dozen independent journalists and non-profits are using the system, and there is a waiting list of about 75.

Berret’s report includes, for the first time, interviews with many of the journalists using SecureDrop. “The findings are promising,” said Berret at the event. “The impact of SecureDrop as a reporting tool is reported to be strong. The typical contents of SecureDrop inboxes fall into several categories. There is little variation in methods of newsroom coordination, but publishers differ on whether or not to cite the origin of SecureDrop stories.”

The panelists discussed at length why such a system, which costs over $2,000 and is less convenient to use than common communication applications, is necessary. “A Pew poll last year showed that 64% of investigative journalists believe that they are under surveillance, and almost half of them changed their practices in light of these concerns,” said Berret. “SecureDrop responds to a real need for more encryption.”

“In the past few years, the Obama administration had prosecuted more sources of journalists than all other administrations combined. One of the reasons why they have been able to do this is their surveillance capabilities,” said Trevor Timm, co-founder and executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “When you look at the indictments of these sources, you see that they have conducted some sort of digital surveillance on the sources, on the journalists, or on both.

“It has become increasingly important for journalists to start protecting sources, not after the fact, but immediately when they start talking to them,” said Timm. “There are many advantages to Using Gmail, but it puts your communications in the hands of a third party. They can have a court order served on them for all your communications, a gag order will be attached, and you may never know. SecureDrop tries to put that power back in the hands of journalists. There are no third parties involved when you set up SecureDrop in your news organization. Each organization owns its own SecureDrop system, and even we don’t have access to any of the data.”

In recent years, Susan McGregor, Assistant Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism and Assistant Professor at Columbia Journalism School, has been studying digital security practices among journalists. “Before the Snowden revelations, there wasn’t great awareness of the surveillance capabilities that are a side effect of electronic communications,” said McGregor. “We now see a second phase – an understanding that this is not just about national security reporting. Journalists who cover a wide range of themes, like finance or regulation, are appreciating the risks that come with that.”

“Default encryption is the direction we are seeing things move, and journalists too need to make this a default. News organizations should say: ‘This is how you talk to us.’”

Garrett Robinson, the Lead Developer on SecureDrop and one of the panelists, provided a quick demo. “The goal is to make leaking fairly easy and fairly safe,” Robinson explained. “SecureDrop allows journalists to ask the source questions without knowing who they are talking to, which gives them plausible deniability.”

“SecureDrop is pretty onerous for journalists to use, and in our training we help them find the workflow. When you make something easy to use, it is almost always the case that you will sacrifice security. We are trying to balance that and bring it back to usability,” said Robinson.

Betsy Reed, Editor-in-Chief of The Intercept, reported that implementing SecureDrop granted The Intercept access to a wider range of stories. “We are seeing a higher volume of submissions and a higher quality of material. One thing came through that looked interesting, but had nothing to do with anything The Intercept is doing. The source heard about our use of SecureDrop, and that is why they came to us. We can now give it to someone else who does not have access to the system.”

According to Barret, “The Globe and Mail said that if they get one story a year from SecureDrop, it will be worth the expense. They immediately got a story, and continue to get stories since.”

Mike Tigas, a News Applications Developer at ProPublica, emphasized that SecureDrop tries to make it as easy for the source as possible. If a source comes to you and says ‘I have this thing and I want to give it to you securely,’ there is already a record of that. SecureDrop provides a first contact that is more secure than what sources would normally do otherwise.”

“We got to a point where it is relatively easy for a source to use SecureDrop,” said Timm. “This is important, because we can spend a day or two in a newsroom and teach them tricks for keeping things as secure as possible, but it is impossible to train sources that we don’t know.”

 

Efrat Nechushtai is a current Ph.D. candidate at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. 

Video: Digital News in a Distributed Environment

On June 21, 2016, the Tow Center hosted the “Digital News in a Distributed Environment” at Columbia Journalism School, which featured the US launch of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s 2016 Digital News Report, as well as the release of preliminary findings from a new research project by the Tow Center examining the relationship between social platforms and publishers. Read the full write-up here.

Guest speakers included: Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism), Liz Heron (The Huffington Post), Vivian Schiller (independent strategist), and Edward Roussel (The Wall Street Journal).

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Questions? Email towcenter@columbia.edu

Protected: A Guide to Journalism and Design

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Robot Journalism and Relative Size

Photo credit: Buzzworthy

At the recent International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, I spoke on a Tow-sponsored panel entitled “Can a Robot Do My Job?” with Emily Bell, Justin Myers, Andreas Graefe, and Nicholas Diakopoulos. We discussed the ways that automated reporting and artificial intelligence can help journalists to uncover story ideas (me), increase algorithmic accountability (Diakopoulos), and automatically generate stories based on structured data (Graefe and Myers).

If you’re interested in hearing our discussion about whether robots will do journalists’ jobs in the near future, you can watch the video recording of our panel discussion.

The short answer to this question is: no, a robot won’t steal your journalism job.

I do love the image of a room full of robots in fedoras typing away and writing stories. But, in reality, when we use automation to write stories in the newsroom we don’t use something that looks like Wall-E. We use software that takes structured data (like earnings reports or sports scores) and combines it with a pre-written outline to form a short journalistic work.

The Associated Press (AP) uses natural language generation software to evaluate the data and “decide” what sentences fit the data. For example, in a 2014 report about the McCormick spice company’s quarterly earnings, the report read: “The results topped Wall Street expectations. The average estimate of analysts surveyed by Zacks Investment Research was for earnings of 81 cents per share.” If the earnings had been down, the report might have read something like, “The results fell below Wall Street expectations.”

After the panel, Graefe brought up something that has come up a number of times in his work on automation: the issue of defining specifically, what does a small change mean? In earnings reports, there can be significant market implications to writing “results fell below Wall Street expectations” versus writing “results fell far below Wall Street expectations” or “results fell slightly below Wall Street expectations.”

As news automation editor at the AP, Myers deals with this issue quite a bit. He oversees the software that automatically writes thousands of stories for the AP. The AP primarily uses the software to generate stories about earnings reports, and they plan to start using it for routine sports stories in the near future. I talked with Myers about how reporters can deal with the issue of relative size in automated journalism. Our edited conversation follows below.

Meredith Broussard: Humans rarely think consciously about relative size. We know what is small and what is large because of context. And there can be two different takes on the issue (case here of the two headlines about the same economic news). But in the world of automated news, if we are writing an algorithm to write the news, we need to make decisions in advance about how big is “big” and how big is “small.” How do you at the AP decide that a change is large or small?

Justin Myers: It depends on the story. When I am working on these projects, my overall process is to talk to reporters a lot and figure out how they make these decisions themselves. They do already, but they may not be aware of the rules they are unconsciously applying. I try to tease these rules out by having an honest discussion. If there is a lot of existing content for me to look back at, I pull articles from the past and see if I can find a pattern. I often do this before I talk to reporters, partly to have a starting point for the discussion.

MB: Is it time to start thinking about standards for automated news writing, so everyone who writes an automated writing program uses the same measure for change?

JM: Yes, and not necessarily. We absolutely should be having standards discussions around algorithmic writing. Our standards editor, Tom Kent, wrote a Medium piece last year with an ethical checklist. I don’t think we need to get as specific as requiring all programmers to use the same standard of change. Part of it, as you mentioned earlier, is context. It depends on the situation, the news organization, and the topic. It should be at the discretion of an individual news organization to determine what makes the most sense for its audience.

We are absolutely having standards discussions at the AP.

MB: Will the standards evolve over time?

JM: Yes, but I don’t think that’s unique to automation. The standards for techniques for journalism have been evolving over decades, centuries. As our reporters, readers and customers get more familiar with the automation technology, the standards will evolve. The conversation will continue for a long time.

MB: I like this idea of evolving standards that change along with human constituencies. Often, we imagine that a computer program is written once, and runs everywhere forever. But really, software needs to change as society changes.

JM: Yes. Especially as we think of these systems as extensions of our human newsgathering, news reporting capabilities. The humans are certainly changing. Why shouldn’t the computers be changing as well?

MB: At the panel, you spoke briefly about the areas of newsgathering and reporting that are ripe for automation. Can you say more about which kinds of news processes are good targets for automation?

JM: The two things I look for are structured data of a good quality (reliable regularly) and high volume. Is this something that we do a lot, or would want to do a lot? If you write a system that saves two hours a month, but it takes you two weeks to write it, it will take a very long time to recoup that effort. I do sometimes do this, because sometimes it helps set us up for larger projects down the road.

Content that we create frequently, or processes that people in newsrooms perform more frequently, are more interesting opportunities.

By and large, when people say “automated writing” or “robot reporting,” people mean automatically generated text content. But software working on any repetitive task in a newsroom can mean non-text content like video or audio. I would extend it further to think about other things in the newsroom, like production processes. One area I’ve been working on in the past year is reporting processes, sifting through the data we get regularly to help reporters more quickly identify what inside the data is newsworthy. That saves them time.

Reporting alerts [automated notifications of notable events like earthquakes or stock fluctuations] are also interesting because they help start conversations about what we talked about earlier – what changes are big, small, newsworthy. This gives us a chance to evaluate in real time: Did this work the way we thought it would? That’s easier when your audience is a small group of reporters and not thousands or millions of people.

MB: The AP is currently using automated writing to produce earnings reports, and is about to use the software to produce sports content. What is the audience like for these stories?

JM: Because of the nature of AP, we are always looking at the needs of a wide variety of customers: newspapers, broadcast, websites. We try to come up with content that works for as many organizations as possible. Many of our earnings reports run on Yahoo Finance, but they’re also important for publications who have a more specific focus. The automated system lets us personalize. You have a better chance of getting an article that is specific to your area, your audience, because we have more individual pieces of content for you to pick from in the first place.

We produce more than 4,000 earnings reports quarterly using this software. We’ll see more variety with sports as well. We’re going to cover games that we can’t attend. If you are a customer in a smaller market where we can’t send a reporter to cover games, there will actually be something on the AP sports wire for you to run in your news outlet. You will have more options.

Examining the Career Paths of Facebook’s News Curators

Social media is increasingly a primary source for news and information in this country. A 2015 Pew Research Center study found that 63% of Facebook users report that the social media website is now a primary source of news, Wired notes that more than 600 million people view at least one news article on Facebook in a given month.

Given Facebook’s growth as a provider of news, it is not altogether surprising that a May 3 article on Gizmodo about the alleged suppression of articles from conservative-leaning sources has sparked significant public debate. Gizmodo’s reporting details a grim view of journalists at the social media giant. But who are the news curators at Facebook?

Curiously, the Gizmodo article pointed readers to a LinkedIn listing of Facebook employees with the title of “curator”. We’re in the midst of a large project, Newsroom21, examining employment trajectories of employees in modern newsrooms. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to use our methodology to add context to this story.

Our results show most curators are trained journalists with diverse backgrounds; most have prior experience working in digital media, and most are accustomed to the work of freelance or contract labor. From our perspective, the reality is that social media organizations are increasingly the spaces where audiences are finding news, and therefore, it’s not altogether surprising that they’re appropriating employees from “traditional” news outlets. It is, however, somewhat surprising that there is such a high concentration of employees with print news backgrounds, as compared to television, digital media, magazines or other news sources.

Traditional organizational research shows that when companies enter into a new market, they will often hire employees with related skills in order to improve competitiveness. Nevertheless, the strong presence of print journalism compared to other industries is somewhat surprising and merits further exploration. On the other hand, it’s also not surprising the exact nature of these job roles is in flux as organizations such as Facebook determine the best way to incorporate a news function into their products.

The figure below shows a network map of the employment histories of the 18 news curators listed publicly on LinkedIn. For this analysis, we’ve de-identified the data and generalized for the purposes of discussion. In order to create the first visualization, we looked at the prior employers listed by Facebook news curators, and we categorized those employers into nine different categories in addition to Facebook.

Final Network Viz - FB Data

The thickness of a connecting line and the intensity of the color indicates that more employees moved between those two industries.

At a high level, this suggests that although traditional journalistic skills are desirable, preliminary data suggests a prioritization of “digital business” savvy – as evidenced by the presence of marketing skills or digital media skills. It is interesting to note that in many cases Facebook was “appropriating” employees from traditional industries – the third and fourth most commonly listed industries were magazines and print newspapers. On the other hand, the first and second most popular commonly listed industries were digital media and marketing / public relations.

Furthermore, none of these news curators came from other technology companies; point to the need for experience with traditional news norms in this particular job role

Looking at the work histories, however, provides a more nuanced perspective. The above illustration merges the prior job transitions for all employees who listed news curator at Facebook as a current position. By focusing on the 18 distinctive work histories, there appears to be an emphasis on the marriage of traditional journalism with digital business skills. Almost every curator had experience working with Web content; those who worked in marketing and public relations generally worked in an editorial or production-based job role. Of course, additional research is needed in order to be able to substantiate this type of directional finding, and this is exactly what we’ve set out to do with the Newsroom21 project.

As was reported, most of the curators at Facebook are contractors; in other words, they are on short-term contracts in positions that do not offer set benefits such as healthcare. In turn, most curators work at least 2 jobs, stitching together an income with freelance work. On average, current curators had spent a little more than a year at Facebook (1.2 years), while overall they averaged 1.7 years in a job role, although this number is skewed by a number of long-term freelance jobs.

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