Platforming the news

“There’s more at stake in the competition around platforms than market share and money. It’s a question of values.”

News organizations are increasingly designing and creating tools, products, and even entire platforms. Who wouldn’t want a technological boost in competitive advantage and efficiency, or an extra, diversified stream of revenue?

nick-diakopolousWe see the inklings of this platform-centric thinking in the industry’s new darlings: from Quartz’ Chartbuilder tool that eases the creation of data graphics, to Mashable’s Velocity dashboard which tracks and predicts viral content online, to Vox Media’s Quiz Quartet which allows non-developers to conveniently create a news quiz.

Many of these projects are open source, allowing others to contribute or build on top of the published code. Together with computational thinking, the open source ethos is helping to fuel this shift to the platform mindset.

Platforms are about creating a solid starting point that can be a springboard for extension and further innovation. They factor out some of the messy details and make it easy for innovators to add a creative twist and build on top. While a story is a one-off, a platform for stories can produce a hundred or even a thousand different experiences.

Story platforms for quizzes, charts, timelines, maps, and the production of other content are just a starting point, though. In 2015, we’ll see an expansion of platform thinking beyond content, to include the whole range of journalistic activities, from news gathering to sensemaking and dissemination. For instance, The New York Times recently launched and open-sourced its Hive crowdsourcing platform, which empowers people to setup and run their own crowdsourcing projects. The Coral Project will rethink online comments as a platform with core functions and a plugin architecture for adaptation. What other journalistic tasks and outputs are ripe for platformatization?

On the other hand, it’s crowded out there. Because they’re so valuable, platforms are a highly competitive endeavor. And as these platforms leave their nests and hit the market, news organizations will begin to spar with incumbent information providers — Google, SocialFlow, Disqus, Flipboard, and others — particularly where the platform enables an activity outside of content production. Should news organizations compete on the same terms as these other incumbents?

In her address to the Reuters Institute last month, Emily Bell noted that none of the social dissemination platforms that we use on a daily basis have been created by news organizations. In the same vein would be automated news writing platforms like Automated Insights and Narrative Science, which systematize the production of news copy from structured data. Do we really want to be so reliant on social platforms for driving traffic, or to be leaning on only one or two algorithms for producing automated content at scale — or is diversity still important?

There’s more at stake in the competition around platforms than market share and money. It’s a question of values. Platforms produced by news organizations can weave journalistic values into their fabric. The increased production of platforms by news organizations will, whether consciously and intentionally or not, spread their ethos and provide a counterweight to the prevailing set of Silicon Valley objectives typically baked in.

Nick Diakopoulos is an assistant professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.