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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 7, 2010

Looking at the future of news


By Jay Fidell

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser
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The owner of the Star-Bulletin is buying the Advertiser, and now it's anyone's guess what will happen. This is symptomatic of the decline of newspapers.

Now that we may have a one-horse newspaper town, it's time to take a closer look at the migration of news to the Net. As if on cue, ThinkTech and others are presenting NewsMorphosis on March 18. (www.Thinktechhawaii.com)

In a print paper, editors vet the news. This is not so on the Net, where there are legions of more liberated sources, including untrained citizen journalists. Will their copy be properly readable, reliable and responsible?

AUTOMATED EDITORS

Given advances in programming over recent years, there's no question that we have the technology to create automated editors to choose the news for us.

Can we be confident about automated news editors? Can automated editors separate fact from fiction in a world of disinformation? Can they understand right from wrong and impose journalistic ethics?

The success of any editor, human or automated, is a function of the quality of the original data, the sources of hard news. As newspapers decline, so do the sources of hard news. This is doubly troubling.

It's one thing to edit straight news stories, but it's another to make judgments about opinions, editorials and commentaries. How should these be handled, and should they be vetted using the same system?

How can we program and perfect an automated editor? What rating data and algorithms would be trustworthy? How would ratings be gathered? Would this be under the hood as in Google News, or visible as in YouTube?

I suggest it'll be a combination of techniques, generally ordering stories by the most recent and popular and then individually on user preferences. In Google News, Google uses your search history to silently select recommended stories.

Google also lets you "star" certain stories, and it's experimenting with what it calls "Living Stories" to let you follow threads going forward. This is not the same as a human editor, but customization gives you some degree of control.

What Google is doing is the way to the future. I think its opening page will become the standard smart, personal and sticky. Google and its followers will develop algorithms to make it breathlessly easy for you to be informed.

THE NEW READING

This week, Fortune Magazine covers the future of reading. People don't read the same way on the Net as in print. The language of the Net is faster and jumps off the page, but people don't drill down when they read online.

Text on the Net is evolving into a different language, with different rules and cadences. Video on the Net, in the endless stream of rhythmic videos on the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, is another kind of language.

Will these systems draw the same readers who've been reading the newspaper all their lives? Some of those readers may not be prepared to relocate to the Net. Likewise, some of today's Net readers weren't raised reading newspapers.

NO TURNING BACK

Regrettably, it's a one-way street. As the conventional infrastructure crumbles, will we ever be able to rebuild it? When we lose layers of the editorial process, it's difficult or impossible to bring them back. The trend is hardly reversible.

And can we go back to an earlier time when people spread out the news with their morning coffee and read to the point of being fully informed on Election Day? How can we redirect their interest and restore their trust in the media?

Can the new news replace the newspapers? Can citizen journalists gain access to public officials and gather the information necessary to be credible? Can the new model sustain itself? Moreover, can it sustain us in a free society?

News is more than news it's the continuing education that enriches our lives. The loss of conventional media could be devastating, but the emergence of a new "have-it-your-way" medium could redefine our way of looking at the world.

The genie is well out of the bottle. There is no turning back now.