Don't be a journalism algorithm

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

life in the algorithm

Gizmodo‘s Michael Nunez delved into the lives of Facebook’s contract journalists in a well-shared piece:

Over time, the work became increasingly demanding, and Facebook’s trending news team started to look more and more like the worst stereotypes of a digital media content farm. Managers gave curators aggressive quotas for how many summaries and headlines to write, and timed how long it took curators to write a post. The general standard was 20 posts a day. “We shared documents to see how fast everyone was working,” said one former curator. “They tried to foster inter-office competition to see how many topics we could complete every day.”

Rough work conditions? Incredible pressure? Contractors not employees? That doesn’t sound like the young, hipster Facebook workplace we normally hear about. It almost suggests that… journalists aren’t really important to Facebook?

That said, many former employees suspect that Facebook’s eventual goal is to replace its human curators with a robotic one. The former curators Gizmodo interviewed started to feel like they were training a machine, one that would eventually take their jobs. Managers began referring to a “more streamlined process” in meetings. As one former contractor put it: “We felt like we were part of an experiment that, as the algorithm got better, there was a sense that at some point the humans would be replaced.”

It would certainly make sense to keep employees you have no long-term plans for on short-term contracts, right?

Facebook: threat or menace?

An instant article, fodder for the algorithm

Facebook is not a friend of journalism. That’s the mistake too many publishers are making. Yes, Instant Articles are sexy and monetisable – but they’re an excellent way of Facebook keeping people in Facebook when they read our stories, rather than exploring our sites. Yes, Facebook is a hugely important route to readers, but the more dependent we get on them, the more they’ll be able to charge us to access that audience.

And, if you’re not already concerned, the news that Facebook is seeing an alarming (to them) drop in sharing of personal information should be ringing warning bells:

Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg has spoken at Facebook staff meetings this year about the need to inspire personal sharing, the people said. Facebook has tried several tactics to encourage more of these posts, such as an “On This Day” feature launched last year that brings up memories from past years that users might want to talk about again, or reminders about special occasions like Mother’s Day. Facebook has also prompted users to post the most recent photos and other recently accessed content from their phones.

One likely implication of that is that we’ll see Facebook start to turn down the organic reach of news posts and up the reach of more personal posts again. That’s a dual win for Facebook:

  1. Encourage more people to share personal information. It’s Facebook’s heart blood – a news links sharing site is a commodity, a place to catch up with your fiends is not.
  2. It opens up the opportunity to charge publishers for the reach they’ve lost.

If the latter case sounds familiar, it’s because it’s exactly what happened to brand marketing pages a couple of years ago.

I’ve warned of this in the past – the case for it now seems clearer.

As Teddy Amenabar, comments editor on The Washington Post’s audience engagement team wrote:

Facebook wants to become “the” Internet.

We really don’t want that – because then we are all beholden to it for audiences.

The algorithmic view from nowhere

Facebook’s deep and abiding respect for journalism can also be seen in both the ways it treats its journalist “employees” and in the sweet candies it puts in the platform trap it is creating for us.

But can journalists’ news judgement really be billed down to an algorithm? Surely the human gut instinct for a story is something mere software can’t replicate.

Jon Gruber of Daring Fireball has some thoughts on that:

Progress in the industrialized world has always involved previously labor-intensive jobs being replaced by automated machinery. We’ve gotten to the point now where some of this work is white collar, not blue collar, and some journalists seem offended by the notion. Their downfall is their dogmatic belief in not having a point-of-view, of contorting themselves to appear not to have a point of view — which, as Jay Rosen has forcefully argued, is effectively a “view from nowhere”. The irony is that machines don’t have a point of view — they are “objective”. Over the last half century or so, mainstream U.S. journalism has evolved in a way that has writers and editors acting like machines. They’ve made it easier for themselves to be replaced by algorithms. Most readers won’t even notice.

This implies that journalism as a profession has an interesting – and narrow – line to walk.

On the one hand, being a “just the facts” reporter makes you commoditised. You’re easily replaced by an algorithm. We’ve already seen that emerging in sports and financial journalism.

On the other hand, the internet has made opinion writing so widely available that it really isn’t a valuable commodity any more – unless you’re in the very top rank whom people will actively pay to read. Part of The Times‘s secret paywall sauce is opinion writers on the level of Caitlin Moran whom people will pay for.

The PoV Path

So where does that leave us? Reporting – but with a strong point of view. We can’t just provide the facts, we have to contextualise them, explain them – and perhaps make them entertaining. This is, in essence, a challenge to up our game.

This shouldn’t be a surprise.

In an era when anyone can publish, standing out from the crowd is harder than it’s ever been. And that means the diversity of skills – research, writing, storytelling, multimedia – you need is growing.

Gruber again:

My job then, is to be a better writer — smarter, funnier, keener, more surprising — than an algorithm could be. When I can’t do that, it’ll be time to hang up the keyboard.

algorithmsFacebookinstant articlesjohn gruberJournalismJournalistsview from nowhere

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.