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 FEATURES

BY THOMAS K. GROSE
ILLUSTRATION BY KEN ORVIDAS
Feature image of G. Wayne Clough

COVER STORY

THE NEW FRONT PAGE

Computer science and journalism join forces.


Earlier this year, the Chicago Tribune, the Windy City’s venerable daily newspaper, broke a major scandal: Around 800 students managed to enroll at the University of Illinois because of their families’ political clout, not their qualifications. In mid-July, a follow-up story that used computer-generated data determined that around half the 611 students from Illinois were graduates of just 22 high schools. On the Trib’s website, the article was accompanied by an interactive feature that let readers search to see which high schools were “clouted” or clean. It was the first “app” co-developed by Brian Boyer, hired a month earlier as the paper’s news applications editor.

And Boyer, 31, is clearly loving his new job. “It’s fun to come to work every morning and be excited by what you do.” But Boyer’s not your typical young journalist excited by his first big project. He’s a computer scientist who spent seven years as a software engineer before recently earning a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism. Boyer — and another Tribune new hire, Ryan Mark — were the first two graduates of the Medill New Media Publishing Project, a new master’s program run in tandem with the McCormick School of Engineering that trains computer scientists in the fundamentals of journalism.

Medill’s program is not unique. At schools around the country — including the University of Missouri, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — journalists, computer scientists, and engineers are collaborating to develop new technologies that could not only transform the way news is reported, distributed, and consumed, but give rise to a new generation of computer scientists and journalists who share a deep understanding of both disciplines.

Red Ink and Cutbacks

Certainly, the journalism business is in dire need of an overhaul. The red ink is flowing as readers and advertisers desert traditional print media in droves for the Web, a money-losing trend exacerbated by the recession-generated ad slump. The San Francisco Chronicle saw its print circulation fall 25 percent in the period between April and September of this year. 

Several newspapers and magazines have folded, and many others struggle to survive with sharply reduced staff. Even Boyer’s new employer, the Chicago Tribune, has filed for reorganization under federal bankruptcy law. The industry readily concedes that if it is to survive, it needs to figure out how to make the transition to a digital world and use technology to make it more productive and introduce new revenue streams.

“Journalism is obviously in turmoil,” says Larry Birnbaum, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Northwestern who helps teach the Medill program. “But turmoil is good. Turmoil is opportunity.” Some media companies and titles won’t survive, he admits, “but that’s not to say that news and journalism won’t be saved.”

The shrinking of newspapers and the perceived void in news coverage caused by staff cutbacks have spawned a number of imaginative ventures, including a Boston-based Web publication, GlobalPost, devoted to foreign news, and the nonprofit ProPublica, specializing in investigative journalism. One of the latest entrants is the Bay Area News project, an initiative of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, and public broadcaster KQED, funded by $5 million from investor-philanthropist F. Warren Hellman.

The involvement of engineering schools now offers the potential for new levels of innovation and possible new revenue streams. Rich Gordon, Medill’s director of digital technology, who conceived the master’s program, plays down the role of White Knight. “It’s not our point to save journalism,” he says. But his group does aim to revitalize the profession and help it embrace the digital future.

"Turmoil is good. Turmoil is opportunity."Commercial Applications

One indication of how strongly computer science and journalism are becoming intertwined is the opening this fall of a new Center for Innovation in Technology, Media, and Journalism at Northwestern. It’s another collaboration between the engineering and journalism schools, and will be co-directed by Hammond and Birnbaum. They anticipate funding from industry, foundations, and the National Science Foundation. And their goal is to work very fast to develop workable, commercial applications within a year or two.

So, what kinds of technologies are likely to emerge from journalism/computer engineering collaborations? Some will improve productivity, to hold down costs. Irfan Essa, a Georgia Tech computer scientist, who oversees a program in computational journalism at the school, requires his students to learn the basic tenets of journalism. They also work with journalists and study how newsrooms work, so they can develop software tools to smooth the processes of news gathering, writing, and dissemination — like fact-checking software that works in real time, while a journalist is still writing.

Kristian Hammond, an electrical engineering and computer science professor involved in the Medill program, says traditional journalism attributes – editorial decision making, fact checking, ethics, storytelling – remain essential. How these skills are deployed, however, is bound to change. For instance, at Medill, the second year of the journalism/computer science program divided 19 students into five teams, with at least one computer science student on each. The teams worked on five individual projects. One is MGSS — Machine Generated Sports Stories. It culls raw data from the Web — box scores, play-by-play information — and autonomously churns out a basic sports story. But yikes, isn’t this just a high-tech way of putting more journalists out to pasture? Nope, says Gordon. Instead, it enables papers to do stories they might otherwise have ignored, like college baseball or Little League. And the same technology could be used to write other data-heavy, formulaic stories – like business earnings or daily market reports.

Milestones In News Technology: The Internet, which threatens newspapers' survival even as it expands their total readership, is merely the latest technological innovation to shake up journalism. Other examples over the centuries: 1500s-1800s technological inventions: 1500s: European Newspapers - Appearing in Venice in 1566 and in Germany in the early 1600s, they opened an era of news for a wide audience. 1800s: Telegraph - Introduced to newspapers at the time of the war with Mexico in the 1840s, it facilitated rapid reporting of distant events. Linotype - Invented in 1886, it allowed lead type to be set and cast using a keyboard, greatly expanding the number of pages printed. Previously, rows of type had been set by hand, letter by letter. 1900s: Radio News - First broadcast commercially by NBC in 1930 (CBS quickly followed), it brought late news to a growing listenership. Television - Growing viewership of broadcast evening news contributed to a lingering death of afternoon newspapers. By 1998, only 781 afternoon papers survived, down from 1,450 in 1950. “Cold” Type - First used in the 1940s, this system of printing using photographic methods sped up production, and by the early 1970s, did away with hot lead. Satellite Transmission of Film - First enabled by the satellite Telstar, launched in 1962, it allowed rapid, even live, transmission of news footage from overseas. Computers and Video Display Terminals - In growing use from the 1970s onward, computers allowed a journalist’s initial keystroke to end up on a printed page. An entire class of employees, printers, was phased out. 24-Hour Cable News - Launched by Ted Turner in 1980, Cable News Network (CNN) brought the immediacy of radio news to the television screen. Portable Video Recorder - Replacing heavy stationary cameras, the video camera and recorder (camcorder) appeared in 1982, expanding the reach and freedom of news cameramen. 2000s: Handheld Digital Devices - These cellphone-computer devices, now widely used wordwide, give average citizens the power to cover live events and post video and news on blogs and websites.


Technologists are also encouraging news organizations to stop competing and to collaborate on some stories as a way to compensate for tighter newsroom budgets. For example, the MIT Media Lab project Open Park aims to develop a strong model “for online collaborative news reporting and writing.”

Other technologies seek to distribute news in new ways or make otherwise cryptic data more understandable and relevant. Raw crime data, for instance, can often give false impressions. “But,” Essa says, “if you layer multiple sources of information, you can tell a more complete story.” So, if you take the aggregate crime numbers and include data from other sources -- zip codes, income levels, property tax rates -- what might emerge is a more compelling story, perhaps one showing where a city’s true crime hot spots are.

What none of these technologies address, however, is the central problem facing the news business: how to generate new revenue for media companies that are swiftly going broke as their websites give away online content. The issue for publishers is that online ads command much lower prices than print ads, so most newspaper websites – even very popular ones – lose money.

"Making money from breaking news is impossible."‘Leapfrogging’

That’s where “micropublishing” comes in. Hammond and Birnbaum note that other “channels,” the search engines that aggregate content from news websites, are making money even as content providers are sinking. Their solution: Develop technologies that “leapfrog the channels,” so that content providers – news organizations – deal directly with consumers and sell ads based on that access. “Micropublishing” would get stories to readers when they’re “in the mood,” before they search for them on channels such as Google, Birnbaum says. One Medill student project, Twitter News Service, could be that kind of leapfrog technology, he and Hammond say. TNS sends Twitter users links to news stories that they are likely to find interesting, based on the users’ “tweets,” or posts. Accompanying the stories would be ads relevant to the topic, the theory being that advertisers would pay higher rates for such a targeted service.

Another technology, called Circulate, is a plug-in app co-developed by a veteran journalist, Bill Densmore, during a recent fellowship at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) at the University of Missouri. Users initially punch in topics that interest them, but Circulate builds on that base by monitoring their browsing habits, ultimately sending them links to stories well before they decide to search for them. Again, the notion is to monetize the service with revenues from advertisers who can send highly targeted ads to people. A company called CircLab has been set up to commercialize Circulate, and investors include both the university and the Associated Press.

A student iPhone apps competition run by the RJI and Missouri’s school of engineering came up with a winner called NearBuy. The app makes it easier for iPhone users to comb through real estate listings and find prospective homes. Classified advertising once provided huge earnings for newspapers. But that market has gravitated online to sites like Craig’s List. Mike McKean, director of RJI’s Futures Lab, says NearBuy could potentially win back some of that advertising for newspapers. NearBuy could not only direct prospective buyers to houses but also include other features: geolocation directions, Flickr pictures of the neighborhood, tweets from folks who live nearby. For all those extra functions, he says, advertisers might pay for the service, which would be free to users.

McKean, meanwhile, is co-teaching an iPhone apps class with Dale Musser, a computer scientist in the engineering school. The student teams will be given real-life problems to solve by various news organizations and ad agencies. Social media are gravitating to smartphones, McKean says, and everybody has a cellphone, which is a big selling point to advertisers. “So journalists need to be in that space.”

Elusive Profits

Some news organizations are expressing interest in getting away from the free-content model, perhaps by using a micropayment system in which readers pay some nominal amount, say 5 or 10 cents, to read a story. The tech guys aren’t certain that will work. “Making money from breaking news is impossible,” says Essa, although he is currently studying Internet economics with the goal of developing some sort of payment service by next year. It’s possible, he says, that consumers may pay for “deeper stuff,” including news analyses and longer features.

Hammond is quick to admit that, at this stage, all the models being considered are speculative, because no one can say for sure which technologies will grab people’s attention or generate revenues. He wryly adds that the current superstars of the Internet firmament – YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and the Huffington Post – are all still money losers, too. So newspapers and magazines face a tough transition to a digital future: The old way of doing business no longer pays the rent, but new-media solutions don’t yet generate enough income to make up for the losses.

Boyer, however, is optimistic that technology will keep American journalism alive, “although it’s going to be a bumpy ride” before revenue-producing solutions are found. “Until then,” Boyer says, “we need to keep throwing a bunch of ?!&@ against the wall and see what sticks.” Spoken like a true newsman.


Thomas K. Grose is Prism’s chief correspondent, based in the United Kingdom.

 

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