Engineers And Journalists

Dec 31, 2014

A recent post on NPR’s All Tech Considered caught my eye. It was called Silicon Valley’s Power Over The Free Press: Why It Matters written by Elise Hu. The piece focused on how the Silicon Valley’s large tech companies, specifically Facebook and Twitter, are now controlling the distribution of the news and information people receive and pay attention to. And, as you might imagine, this is not a great thing.

Hu draws extensively from a speech given at Oxford University recently by Emily Bell, who led the digital transition of The Guardian and is currently director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. The takeaways from Hu’s piece, based largely on Bell’s experience, are these:

We got into this situation because established legacy media organizations lacked the vision or will to adapt fast enough to a changing information landscape until it was too late. If you go easy on these old school media organizations, you see how hard it was for them to innovate and experiment as a “tech lab” while churning out news every day. If you’re more critical, you see how these organizations smugly dismissed bloggers and emerging social media platforms and lazily kept banking fat revenue streams until they dried up.

There is a real danger for our democracy in allowing social media platforms too much power to shape our culture. Even these tech companies themselves seem uncomfortable with this burgeoning responsibility. Hu explains how engineers tweaking algorithms are becoming editors, dramatically affecting the information we receive without thinking about journalistic principles or any responsibility to a democratic society. Hu points to social media’s coverage of the first nights of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri as an example. According to Hu, “If you were on Twitter, you saw an endless stream of photos and links. If you were on Facebook, you saw nearly nothing. All because engineers decide what you see.”

Media organizations dedicated to journalism need to fundamentally change and embrace a new culture for technological innovation.

  In order to have a better informed pubic, journalism organizations should embrace technology and create tools and services that, according to Bell, “put software in the service of journalism rather than the other way around.” Basically, the game’s not over because technology is always changing and the next big thing is just around the corner. With that said, media organizations dedicated to journalism need to fundamentally change and embrace a new culture for technological innovation. No one knows if this is possible.

Hu’s piece got me thinking about the environment and culture of NPR and member stations like JPR. Unlike many staid media organizations, NPR and local NPR stations got into the technology game early and developed tools to allow NPR to seamlessly share content with stations, stations to share content with NPR and facilitate the sharing of content between stations who agree to collaborate. On a practical level, JPR uses this technology every day to publish stories to our website, mobile apps and Facebook page. Coming soon will be more material developed for other social media platforms and the launch of the Public Media Platform, a cool new engine that will allow Public Radio International (PRI), American Public Media (APM) and independent producers to newly make their work available to stations.

What this means for JPR listeners is that we’ll increasingly be able to bring you the best stories that have been created in the public radio system on a topic, no matter their source. And, without the rigid creative limitations often imposed by large media organizations, really creative new work will likely emerge that couldn’t previously break through the narrow editorial gateways. It’s an exciting time for public media. We’ll continue to do our best to curate the flood of content that gets created each day, informed by your feedback and our understanding of what’s important to our neighbors here in the State of Jefferson.

Paul Westhelle, Executive Director