At Northwestern University, out of a place bearing the name Intelligent Information Laboratory, rises the invisible hand of Stats Monkey, a software program capable, its creators say, of drafting dozens of news items in impeccable English within seconds. If it seems smarter than journalists perhaps this is because so far its stories have been limited to baseball, a sport in which statistics dominate. Number crunching is, after all, a mechanical task. Speaking of numbers, the folks who invented Stats Monkey say they plan to expand its coverage to global financial markets, a place where numbers scurry by in milliseconds. In this realm, the stories these numbers tell can make a significant difference—possibly sending markets tumbling with a misstep here or there.
The escalating velocity and density of the flow of data mediates every aspect of our daily lives. Keeping this ferocity in mind, it is not difficult to understand why machines and robots—not human brains and people—face a promising future in journalism. Perhaps it is too much of a stretch for the Stats Monkey developers to predict that a story written by their program will be awarded a Pulitzer Prize within the next few years. With the pace of change so rapid, what might seem on its face an absurd notion can’t be totally dismissed.
Streams Become Floods
Our concern should not be solely a fear of robots replacing us. Journalists’ place in the world already is being reshaped by the widespread ability—belonging to anyone with a digital device—to effortlessly and inexpensively produce and disseminate information globally. Digital connectivity delivers us into unrelenting streams of social media that can drown us with their overflow of information. With digital media, government officials can—and do—bypass the pesky press by sending talking-point messages via Facebook or YouTube. Corporate interests and nonprofit organizations now rely on their own message-making strategies to deliver words about their missions and promote products and campaigns. And then there is the controversial public release of secrets by WikiLeaks and the potential this ease of revealing holds for other whistleblowers.
With this deluge of information come benefits, too. In moments of crisis, mapping assists humanitarian aid workers. In times of revolution, the once-silenced voices of protesters are heard. For journalists who are paying attention, these new sources represent an expansion of opportunity. Yet at the same time, these trends leave us unsettled, in search of answers—or at least looking for solid footing to regroup and reflect on what’s happening.
When, for example, do tweets or blog posts assume newsworthiness similar to what journalists are obligated to strive to produce? And how do those receiving this torrent of information figure out what to trust and what to ignore? How is the information verified? By the crowd or by whom?
Earlier this year I wrote a paper called "Tweet First, Verify Later? How real-time information is changing the coverage of worldwide crisis events," published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. In it, I explore how people differentiate a true account from one designed with the aim of spinning the recipient in the direction of accepting supposition as fact. As the digital flood sweeps into our lives every imaginable kind of information, much of it offering nothing more than a smoke screen to blur or distort our view, figuring this out is crucial.
Who or what can help us see beyond the smoke? Will software like Stats Monkey give us reason to believe that we are swimming only in facts with its mechanical certainty? And what will be the role of journalists in a media landscape in which reporters and news items are little more than commodities, and, in the case of reporters, a soon-to-be redundancy?
Effecinque’s “News in Motion” uses graphics to tell the story of the twists and turns of Silvio Berlusconi’s 17 years in Italian politics.
Refreshing Journalism Practices
Beginning in 2009, as journalists were confronting these digital inevitabilities, Totem, the Italian news media agency where I worked, faced these hard issues. In 2010, along with three colleagues, Gabriele De Palma, Carola Frediani, and Raffaele Mastrolonardo, I decided to leave and launch an independent digital news start-up. Though we did not pretend to have all the answers, we were confident that our venture would not join the "clicking war" that so dominates the online media field. We had no intention of adding more noise to the information overload.
Instead, our approach was inspired by a book about journalism’s future that Mastrolonardo and I were writing—"La Scimmia che Vinse il Pulitzer" ("The Monkey That Won a Pulitzer"). In it, we featured eight stories told by those who have created such digital projects as Politifact, Stats Monkey, and BNO News, along with digital journalists at The New York Times. Using their pioneering ways as our guide, we embraced the idea of radical change from all that we had known, and we began with our company’s name. Since hitting the F5 key when using the most popular Internet browsers refreshes the page—thus sending a signal of change and constant update—our name became "Effecinque" ("F5" in Italian).
We launched in April 2010 with the intent of being relentless hunters of news and human filters of information. Our task is made easier with new technology tools and the assistance of those who New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen calls the "people formerly known as the audience."
Putting Our Ideas in Motion
In preparing to launch Effecinque, we got in touch with TIWI, another local start-up focused on innovative storytelling through the use of motion graphics. Once we’d seen TIWI’s display, the combination of our newsgathering ambition and the creative possibilities of this technology gave way to a project we call "News in Motion." The idea is simple: Each day we are inundated with massive amounts of news, much of which reaches us without a context, separated from a historical narrative. That is what we would bring to the news. In Italy, politics these days is like soap opera, with betrayal, appeasement and complicated relationships all in play. Increasingly people were feeling confused and tuning out news that has an impact on their lives. We wanted to give them a reason and a way to engage with it. Provide them, we thought, with context and interactivity, timelines and some easy-to-access data, and understanding and engagement would follow.
One of our first projects played with political stories as we thought about how to place what’s happening now in the context of its longer narrative. When we showed the first demo to Francesca Folda, editor in chief of the news portal Sky.it, she saw its journalistic potential and proposed that we start a partnership. The result was a series of short videos called "Beautiful Lab" that quickly went viral. This led us to create another motion-graphics series that uses a new format—Pigia Pigia—that is inspired by the Tetris video game to present stories about big business, sports and current events.
Our approach and our partnership have succeeded. We aren’t adding noise but offering news of value, albeit with a taste of lightness and fun. Our story is not uncommon and gives us hope that in an overcrowded media environment, there are—and will be—gaps to fill. With information a commodity and the fragmented digital landscape eroding what is left of journalism’s mass media, value will be found in context, clarity and verification.
Niche enterprises like ours might offer valuable clues to bigger news organizations as they look to develop Web-native applications and content. What our experimenting tells us is that the emphasis should be on filtering out noise and breaking the flow of information into manageable pieces—with some form of interactivity built in. Crucial to success is an open collaboration with a variety of external sources while paying close attention to user and social media feedback.
No automated software or amateur reporter will ever replace a good journalist. This presumes, of course, good journalists will be those who adapt to changes happening around them by using emerging programs and tools and creating collaborations and conversations with those who were their audience.
That’s why we are still optimistic about journalism as a thriving profession. And that’s why we will be able to cheer when, sooner or later, something written by Stats Monkey is nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
Nicola Bruno is cofounder of Effecinque and a journalist fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is working on a research project about the rise of digital news start-ups in Europe. In March 2011 he coauthored "La Scimmia che Vinse il Pulitzer: Personaggi, Avventure e (Buone) Notizie dal Futuro dell’Informazione" ("The Monkey That Won a Pulitzer: People, Adventures and (Good) News From the Future of Information").