Algorithms are increasingly invoked as powerful entities that control, govern, sort, regulate, and shape everything from financial trades to news media. Nevertheless, the nature and implications of such orderings are far from clear. What exactly is it that algorithms “do”? What is the role attributed to “algorithms” in these arguments? How can we turn the “problem of algorithms” into an object of productive inquiry? This conference sets out to explore the recent rise of algorithms as an object of interest in scholarship, policy, and practice.
This assertion of algorithmic objectivity plays in many ways an equivalent role to the norm of objectivity in Western journalism. Like search engines, journalists have developed tactics for determining what is most relevant, how to report it, and how to assure its relevance — a set of practices that are relatively invisible to their audience, a goal that they admit is messier to pursue than they might appear, and a principle that helps set aside but does not eradicate value judgments and personal politics. These institutionalized practices are animated by a conceptual promise that, in the discourse of journalism, is regularly articulated (or overstated) as a kind of totem. Journalists use the norm of objectivity as a “strategic ritual” (Tuchman 1972), to lend public legitimacy to knowledge production tactics that are inherently precarious. “Establishing jurisdiction over the ability to objectively parse reality is a claim to a special kind of authority” (Schudson and Anderson 2009, 96).
Journalist and algorithmic objectivities are by no means the same. Journalistic objectivity depends on an institutional promise of due diligence, built into and conveyed via a set of norms journalists learned in training and on the job; their choices represent a careful expertise backed by a deeply infused, philosophical and professional commitment to set aside their own biases and political beliefs. The promise of the algorithm leans much less on institutional norms and trained expertise, and more on a technologically inflected promise of mechanical neutrality. Whatever choices are made are presented both as distant from the intervention of human hands, and as submerged inside of the cold workings of the machine.
But in both, legitimacy depends on accumulated guidelines for the proceduralization of information selection. The discourses and practices of objectivity have come to serve as a constitutive rule of journalism (Ryfe 2006). Objectivity is part of how journalists understand themselves and what it means to be a journalist. It is part of how their work is evaluated, by editors, colleagues, and their readers. It is a defining signal by which journalists even recognize what counts as journalism. The promise of algorithmic objectivity, too, has been palpably incorporated into the working practices of algorithm providers, constitutively defining the function and purpose of the information service. When Google includes in its “Ten Things We Know to Be True” manifesto that “Our users trust our objectivity and no short-term gain could ever justify breaching that trust,” this is neither spin nor corporate Kool-Aid. It is a deeply ingrained understanding of the public character of Google’s information service, one that both influences and legitimizes many of its technical and commercial undertakings, and helps obscure the messier reality of the service it provides.
Matt Waite — ex-Tampa Bay Times and Politifact, currently professing at the University of Nebraska — promotes the Raspberry Pi as a Trojan horse for newsroom IT. (Trojan horse in the sneaky-way-to-get-around-obstacles sense, not in the malware sense.)
Unfamiliar with the Pi? The Model B Pi is a $35 computer that’s about the size of a deck of cards. It’s got an ethernet port, and you supply the hard drive in the form of an SD card, the keyboard, mouse and monitor. Now, for $35, you’re not getting a ton of horsepower, but for simple repetitive tasks it works great.
What kind of simple, repetitive tasks? Let’s pretend for a second that you wanted to set up a scraper that dumped data into a database every hour. Ideally, you’d have a server somewhere and you’d set up a task on it — I like using ‘nix’s cron for things like this — and off it would go, mindlessly gathering data for you and putting it into a database. You could then go about your life, stopping by from time to time to get that data and do whatever you’re going to do with it. So you ask newsroom IT for this and, of course, the answer is no. And no we won’t give you the money to run this in the cloud for a few bucks a month either.
— It describes how Justin, a few years back, started an independent, no-revenue site called BPSsports that covered high school sports in the urban Boston public schools — something local media wasn’t particularly interested in covering. After building it up, it was scooped up by The Boston Globe, where it lives on as BPS Sports Blog at Boston.com, with Justin still serving as lead writer. It’s a nice example of the value of just starting something and of the opportunities that can open up.
Rice didn’t approach his innovative gig by knocking on doors in a traditional way. He nabbed it by doing the work of BPSsports himself, at first, creating a proof of concept that eventually paid off. He showcased the potential. He eventually reaped the rewards. In that, there’s a time-tested entrepreneurial tradition, but there’s also a takeaway specifically for writers looking to make their own beat, especially in an age of digital news.
“Just jump in and don’t hesitate,” Rice said. “If you truly want to occupy a new niche, then you’ve got to claim that niche as quickly as possible, before anyone else does. Throw up what you can, do as much as you can with it. If it truly is a niche, somebody else is going to be interested.”
— We know Justin around here — he wrote a four-part series for Nieman Lab on the impact of sports networks becoming their own media outlets way back in 2009.
— The story isn’t actually straight Forbes journalism — it’s part of its Forbes BrandVoice program that lets brands “post interesting and relevant content on Forbes.com while tapping into the social web through Forbes’ powerful, search optimized publishing platform.” So this piece was presented by…John Hancock, which I guess wants you to think of it whenever you think of urban high school sports? (James O’Brien is listed as the author.)
We hear about it when sponsored content goes wrong, and there are plenty of landmines that need navigating. But it’s also worth noting when sponsored content checks in as somewhere between “inoffensive” and “nice.”
The New Yorker’s Matt Buchanan takes a look at the design culture of Google and how the company went from a “dizzying and disparate array of products,” to the more unified look you see with Google’s new releases today.
On Wednesday, the New Yorker launched a Tor- and open-source-based file-sharing tool/tip line called Strongbox meant to allow sources to communicate information to the magazine without fear of it being traced back to them.
I am also concerned that the system may still be too hard to use. The Strongbox web service has a simple, clean interface — and bravo for that — but first the user has to get Tor running. In my experience, even savvy technologists vastly overestimate the number of people who can reliably complete tasks like “download and install this software.” If these users don’t also understand why such drastic measures are necessary, they will find ways to accomplish their goals with much simpler tools — like email. Strongbox cannot help users who are too frustrated to get it working properly.
And then, there is “the big question hanging over any secure dropbox,” writes The New York Times’ Jacob Harris: “Will you get any useful tips?”
The Tribune Company which houses the Los Angeles Times, The Balitimore Sun and The Chicago Tribune (along with many other local newspapers) is up for sale!
The Bad News: The only people who are bidding on it right now are infamous right-wing Billionaires, who are likely to pay something around a $660 Million pricetag to control a big slice of trusted news media.
So let’s pass the hat and raise $660 million ourselves!
Yes, we’re trying to make a point here. And yes, some might say we’re tilting at corporate windmills — but someone’s got to do it. We need to get the conversation on media ownership started. And what if by some freak miracle we do begin to approach the ridiculous sum of $660 Million? (That would be weird, but weirder things have happened – trust us.) What if we really do change the game of Billionaires vs. The Rest Of Us? It can’t hurt to try, can it?
The announcement is up at the Nieman Foundation site. It’s a great batch of 24 journalists — half from the United States, half from the rest of the world — who’ll be spending the next year here at Harvard. (Journalists: It’s never too early to start thinking about applying. The first deadlines are a little over six months away.)
Newsweek.com will be entirely free at the start, but executives plan to eventually introduce a metered pay wall, in which frequent users will be asked to subscribe. All of the content will remain free to Newsweek Global subscribers.
No ads will appear on Newsweek.com during the beta stage of its life. When ads do become part of the mix, they will not look like the standard units promoted by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, according to Mr. Shetty. Newsweek.com will instead adopt a sponsorship model featuring one advertiser in each article. “They’re going to be bold, beautiful, high-impact units,” he said.
Last year we wrote about the launch of Skift, the travel media start-up created by Rafat Ali, the founder of paidContent. Almost at the anniversary mark, Skift has received new funding, and Ali says the site will be expanding and increasing its focus on data: “We are using this funding to double on our staff (from 5 so far to 10, in a month), build out the initial sales infrastructure, and continue building out our data services,” he writes.
In a year that was monopolized by the “Fifty Shades” erotic novels and their various knockoffs, e-book sales in fiction rose 42 percent over the year before, to $1.8 billion. Growth in nonfiction e-book sales was smaller, a 22 percent increase, to $484.2 million. E-book sales in the children’s and young-adult categories increased 117 percent, to $469.2 million.
The survey revealed that e-books now account for 20 percent of publishers’ revenues, up from 15 percent in 2011. Publishers’ net revenues in 2012 were $15 billion, up from $14 billion in 2011, while unit sales of trade books increased 8 percent, to $2.3 billion.
Neil Irwin at WaPo’s Wonkblog looks at what the Bloomberg snooping scandal/”scandal” says about the media business:
You can’t think about Bloomberg News without understanding that this is the ecosystem in which it exists. The journalists there create some excellent work on topics that have nothing to do with financial markets — but their bread and butter, their raison d’etre is to be one more thing that makes the Bloomberg terminal something that financial professionals can’t afford not to have…
Which brings us back to the events of the last few days. The practice of letting journalists access information about when subscribers had logged in and what broad categories of data they accessed pits the two imperatives of Bloomberg’s strategy against each other. On the one hand, it wants to do everything it can to ensure that its reporters are drumming up information that the competition isn’t. On the other, anything that discomfits the subscribers who are paying the bills could endanger the whole enterprise.
FastCo.Labs is experimenting with what it calls “slow liveblogging,” an approach to writing that takes a cue from Wikipedia. Stories start as “stubs” and are gradually lengthened over time. What they found was that drawing out the life of a story by constantly updating it caused readers to stay on the site longer.
Author Chris Dannen conflates quality with length, which is problematic, but the traffic metrics are nonetheless interesting, as is the discussion of how to build a more adaptable CMS.
“We knew from the outset that it was incredibly important to foster a really robust and vibrant conversation on these issues, and we knew, also, that it’s really easy for conversations about race, ethnicity, and culture to go off the rails.”
ProPublica will launch Prescriber Checkup on Saturday, a database that, as if guided by an occult hand, allows users to search which doctors are prescribing what drugs through Medicare. This comes on the heels of yesterday’s launch of the Nonprofit Explorer, a database that makes tax return information from nearly 616,000 nonprofit organizations searchable.
In 2010 alone, doctors wrote over one billion prescriptions to Medicare patients. Further exploration of the rapidly expanding Medicare drug system will dovetail nicely with ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs project, which tracks how much private doctors earn from pharmaceutical companies.
Fresh off the announcement of their paywall experiment, Politico says it plans to expand its current subscription-based service, Politico Pro, to include trade, agriculture, and education. The company plans to launch even more Pro verticals in 2014. Dylan Byers has the memo, which offers some details into how Politico thinks about making its money:
We believe any successful media company in this age must have multiple revenue streams. In our early years, we were 100 percent reliant on issue advocacy advertising, mainly in print. That worked very well for us, and still does. But a growing newsroom must be supported by a growing business, so we have introduced events and subscriptions over the past 36 months. We still get the vast majority of our revenue from advertising, with online ads growing the fastest. But we project subscriptions will account for 25 percent of our revenue this year and close to 50 percent by 2016, providing the company a nice, sustainable balance. The beauty of subscription revenue is that it’s predictable and not dependent on broader economic and market trends. Like clockwork, more than 95 percent of Pro subscribers renew each year and the few that drop are usually members of Congress who lost reelection or companies that went out of business or merged. In almost every case, Pro subscribers often add new verticals — or more users — to their package each year.
An editor or writer who gets to file her copy into the system and forget about is an editor who is being alienated, in the most Marxist possible way, from the fruits of their labor. That journalist has lost contact with his or her consumer. Editors need to help craft the way their content gets presented to their readers. They themselves don’t have to be designers, coders or even, strictly speaking, ticket-moving product managers. They do need to have a seat at the same table as those other people, and explain the way their content will be most valuable, come to consensus, and then work with those other colleagues to help spec out, design, build and release the code that can bring that value to the reader.
Sign up for our daily email for all the freshest future-of-journalism news in your inbox.