Making journalism compute.

Sunday, February 24th, 2008

I hold a real fascination with what’s happening to the craft/profession of journalism because, well, I come from a time when journalism functioned, and I appear to be living in a time where the first rough draft of its epitaph is being crafted online.

Premature? Most probably. Persistent, those rumors of its demise? You bet.

I have an odd and diverse set of interests in newswriting, media, television, graphic design, journalism, computers, databases, and open source software…and I was thus surprised to see a conference organized that seemed to dump all of those interests into one big ol’room for a day and a half…barely two miles from my house.

Georgia Tech, seldom regarded as an incubator for journalists, sponsored the mashup, the mixup, the remix, the…oh, all right, A Symposium on Computation and Journalism. Ask for it by name.

It’s an ambitious attempt by Tech’s School of Interactive Computing professor Irfan Essa, Wired’s Brad Stenger, and Essa’s grad student colleagues to swirl together the hard-to-emulsify bastions of journalists and computer scientists in order to…to…save journalism as we know it via the responsible application of global raw computing power?

Well, no. Of course it was couched in terms like “start a conversation,” and “begin a dialogue.” The computer scientists by en large made nice with the unsettled lot of journalists, disclaiming loudly and often that they were not journalists, that many of their projects were in no way journalism. But in some ways the organizers of this confabulation did their jobs too well, and attracted a large audience and participants that ran the spectrum from old to new journalism, with lots and lots of looks at online entities that are if not journalism, than a batch of fluffy, frothy, quickly-consumed substitutes for the real thing.

And depending on where you’re coming from (and by that I mean whether you remember Watergate or not…okay, whether you’re geezery like me or not), you can find these new concepts engaging or deeply threatening. I saw the spectrum of emotions on the faces peering above the sea of laptops at the conference, which, as many modern meetings do, featured the soft, near-constant clattering of keyboards and the embarrassingly clumsy setup and interchange of Powerpoint and Keynote presentation images between speakers. Often, the reactions to the Brave New World were amazingly predictable by age.

Let me take you though some of my notes from the gathering, hastily scribbled on MacBook, iPhone, and oh yeah, our OLPC XO, which got some attention for being, well, the greenest laptop in the room.


They started strong, with Georgia Tech alum Krishna Bharat, who was instrumental in bringing Google News to life. He explained its computationally complex workflow in a way that seemed calculated to reassure journalists that its function really is to accumulate—like a lens—interest in a certain story and focus and transfer that concentrated attention directly to the linked site. No evil issues, here, old school journalists! To paraphrase MST3K, repeat to yourself “it’s just an algorithm; I should really just relax.”

Fellow keynoter Michael Skoler from American Public Media (aka Minnesota Public Radio) described a fascinating and clever way to aggregate public opinion to form the grist for APM/MPR’s day-to-day mill of stories. By creating a database of lots of people from diverse backgrounds and experiences, and asking them open-ended questions instead of inane online surveys, and making smart, targeted inquiries of these people at the right time, they’ve created a cool multiplier effect on the conventional reporter rolodex, and their reporting breaks way, way out of the mold of the classic “soundbites from the handful of the same experts” mold we’re fast becoming sick of on cable television news and other mainstream media. In some ways, they’re only starting to plumb the depths of the information they’ve harnessed…and it seems almost sad that the output of this prodigious new engine for storytelling is in some ways the most traditional of media: plain ol’ terrestrial radio programs.

I also hope Skoler and company, as their Public Insight Network grows, manage to “have meaningful conversations” amongst themselves and experts on the security and privacy concerns that any large geolocated, demographic-rich database of people can engender.

Panel: Ubiquitous Journalism

Sanjay Sood’s site is one of those aggregation sites that make journalists nervous, yet he too tried to reassure scribes that their approach just broadens the canvas and provides a place for rumors, blogged ideas, and traditional news reporting to all, ahem, get on the same page.

Leah Culver, one of those young developers well-known in certain circles outside the journalistic mainstream, talked about her development of Pownce, a service for sharing messages, files, images, and random thoughts around and among your social network. Yeah, there’s another service similar to that out there. And the old-line journalists (including the panel’s moderator) seemed to use her as an interchangable placeholder for a whole raft of “social conversation” services—his questions seemed to stroll right on by Pownce and saunter on to other hip young sites he’d heard of. That’d annoy me if I spent months of my life slaving over a big ol’pile of Django code.

Finally, Mark Hansen is one of those people you could spend hours to just listening to as ideas spin out and layers of possibilities emerge. The UCLA-based creator of seems endlessly fascinated with the questions that can be raised and answered by ubiquitous inputs—cell phones, traffic-sensors, webcams, networked thermometers—scrape in vast quantities of raw data, massage, visualize, and pluck insights out of the results. Nice work if you can get it…and I mean ‘get it’ in the comprehension sense…not sure how many folk there did. Hansen is also part of the duo that created Moveable Type, the art piece that provides a “A world of news? You’re soaking in it!” experience in the NYT’s fancy new lobby. Very cool to meet him.

Tidbit from Hansen: the name of the original ‘zipper’ ticker-like news light-brite thingie around the base of the old Times tower? The Motograph News Bulletin, of course.

Panel: Social Computing and Journalism

The next panel probably had some members that could have been swapped out with those of the previous one. Michigan State’s Cliff Lampe is a pure-academic researcher well-prepared to dive deep into the underlying (and unruly) behavior of the social networks created by sites that allow commenting, rating, and ranking stories, posts, and ideas. He pries up the lid of Slashdot or Facebook and tries to figure out what the scurrying white mice are doing with each other in there. It’s part online economics, part human factors psychology, all duct-taped together with sloppy Perl scripts. Great presentation, despite a complete Powerpoint meltdown.

Like Culver, but with a degree in Physics and a fascination with the power of social dynamics that would blend right in at Google, Digg‘s Lead Scientist Anton Kast took attendees behind the scenes of the news(ish) aggregation site that does magic with the power of vast numbers of upraised or downturned thumbs. Kast (he too, loudly not a journalist) made the telling point that Digg’s credibility pretty much lives and dies on the trust that its users have that 1) it’s an egalitarian, if not a democratic system, and 2) they’re getting unfiltered, unmoderated raw content to process. This is a point that a lot of traditional outlets miss.

Finally, David Cohn has to work on his resumé. Not that it’s insubstantial, it’s just all over the new media map. During his brief, entertaining talk about being a j-school grad who moved through citizen-journalism into the world of, uh, paid content providing, he mentioned about 329 affiliations, all of which sounded like “dubya dubya new blogger assignment zero dot beat net com” to me, but it was getting late in the afternoon and I am, like, totally about 50 years older than he is.

Panel: 21st Century Editor in Chief

In contrast, this panel served to remind us that a lot of the money to pay journalists involved in creating the raw material that, through whatever modern or ancient alchemy gets turned into content..uh..stories still comes from big ol’ corporate America, and a lot of the thinking in their newsrooms is maybe even beyond old school.

Christopher Barr of Yahoo (and before that, Cnet/ZD Networks) came at The New Journalism from a management-y perspective, ordering up a laundry list (are you taking notes, youngsters?) of technology that would facilitate his work. I kinda wanted to sit him down in front of a text editor and see how his raw HTML skills were.

Mitch Gelman of saw the world with familiar (to me) Time Warner-colored glasses, and seemed unaware of the disconnect between the relatively sober content of CNN online and the vapid, increasingly substance-free CNN and Headline News mix of on-air wolf-crying.

And Shawn MacIntosh of the AJC, our hometown paper, seemed to miss the subtext in one of the questions from the audience: Why the heck is your website so poorly designed, so user-unfriendly, so content-free? I hesitate to link to the Cox-owned paper, because non-Atlantans might conclude that in a time of drought and dead-serious concerns about overdevelopment and sprawl, we Atlantans want to read about lottery winners, American Idol contestants, NASCAR, Wal-Mart, and Florida gator-promoting license plates. Uh-oh. (Looks around nervously.)

* * * * *

And all that was just Friday afternoon. Let me down a tasty beverage or two and then come read part two about the Saturday session. Satellite modems! A wise dose of newsroom perspective and common sense! A Django wake-up call! And some guy trying to leverage open source software for some very one-sided profit!