6 Ways to Build Fourth Industrial Age Newsrooms

WEF’s Founder Klaus Shwab went superlative in his 2016 elaboration on the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ framework – “There are three reasons why today’s transformations represent not merely a prolongation of the Third Industrial Revolution, but rather the arrival of a Fourth and distinct one: velocity, scope, and systems impact. The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent.”  

Prior to that, back in 2011, Prof Wolfgang Wahlster explained-“The first wave of digitization of industrial production has already been completed in innovative companies: Data is now only stored, transmitted, and processed digitally. They are machine-readable, but not yet machine-understandable. The second wave of digitization is based on artificial intelligence technologies. AI software can now for the first time interpret machine data in terms of content.” 

The second statement was made over a decade ago. And since then, we have witnessed a fascinating change in the way things are been built, information shared, and human identity reshaped. The framework of the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ can be seen in action now. Perhaps, not as optimistically as Klaus explained in his book by the same name or as productively as Prof Wolfgang hoped in his article- ‘Industry 4.0: With the Internet of Things on the Way to the Fourth Industrial Revolution’. The point to be accepted from both is that the speed of change remains unprecedented and the rush towards artificial intelligence aka- ‘AI software can now interpret machine data ‘is self-evident.  

Such expansive change impacts democracies and individuals in ways that can be hard to highlight or red flag without the capacity to gauge the process behind the sweeping transformation. Journalism as democratic institutions and individual right’s watchdog will have to up the game. 

Journalism’s grapple with data in a way begun in early 2010s, at the occasion of the Cable gate leaks. As exciting it was for newsrooms across the world to get a sneak peek behind the scenes of international diplomacy, it also heralded a new age of data-based leads. Since then, these “leaks” have just grown exponentially. 

Data as the lifeblood of the Fourth Industrial Revolution is also the cookie crumbs to what is happening behind-the-scenes. We will be looking at ever-increasing data leaks both in scale and frequency. And, that is just one way to understand the changing world.  Satellite images, open data and commercial datasets have opened an untapped way to verify manufactured perceptions. At the same time, the business side of journalism has to also address and effectively negotiate with the evolving consumer behavior.  

As a data engineering firm, we have a front seat view to the societal and technological rapid changes. Through this post, we intend to make few recommendations that we hope will help journalistic ventures, especially Indian initiatives. 

Put your data, where your mouth is-  

The current pace of data surge penalizes public interest journalism not only for suboptimal data storage but also for incompetent processing prowess, essential to generating lessons and stories. Collaborative computation process is key here. Data age journalistic ventures will have to treat computing as a utility, and the ‘cloud’ as part of their vision.  

The emerging paradigm of cloud computing enables users to ‘rent’ infrastructure and services as needed and only pay for actual usage. This further strengthens the case for operational investment in building data infrastructure and more for joint infrastructures. Imagine this- participating news units can share system setup and maintenance costs, and each reporter can access a much bigger pool of resources than otherwise possible. Popular tools such as maps, graphs, and visual models can be turned into scalable data processing projects with multiple inputs and reusable components- drastically improving operational efficiency and pace. The platform-ready and willing to execute computational journalism tasks such as converting audio or scanned documents to text, natural language processing, extracting entities and relationships, etc. 

These shared data infrastructures are inherently advantageous for facilitating strategic collaborations, and Public-Interest Journalism stands to massively benefit from this approach. 

Humans for empathy, AI for impact- 

University of Johannesburg’s Prof Ylva Rodny-Gumede has an interesting take on the ‘AI vs Humans’ issue in the journalism sector. She states- “… what journalism can, maybe even more importantly should do, is to build on what is its strengths, independently of platforms, as these will inevitably change with the times. The strength of journalism is not necessarily in providing entertainment or what is new, what it can do however is to add depth, accountability, transparency, and empathy to a media sphere that has become increasingly sensor filled.” The idea being that it fares well for journalistic ventures to enhance their computational capacities to proactively engage with data pipelines, and at the same time reinforce journalism 101- “Rigour, thought, and importantly, empathy.” 

AI-enabled capacities also allow the scale of coverage that has remained elusive to newsrooms. The Norwegian News Agency’s AI-enabled sports newsroom was able to cover low-tier matches and broaden its general new service. The inevitable has to be acknowledged- the more repetitive tasks will be automated. But essential human part of the profession such as relationship with sources, opinion, in-depth analysis or determining newsworthiness will get a necessary fillip.  

Invest in Turning Your Audience into a Community.  

“Trust is the currency to survive in journalism”- remarked European Federation of Journalist’s Director, Renate Schroeder. A rallying community is essential for journalistic ventures to grow- the task starts from building trust to managing engagement and nurturing loyalty.  

To start with, we recommend that scalable and real communities can only be built by steering away from big social media. They can be used as secondary channels, but for news organizations to emerge as data-age organizations they should avoid handling social media as audience engagement crutches. 

Our pitch is to nudge media organizations to experiment with a series of tools and features that strengthen first-party data and distribution systems. We are talking about – embeddable web forms to gather readers’ opinions, hold votes, collect reader-generated stories, gamification of news, troll filtered comment sections and providing production notes after publication to encourage transparency.  

The road to nurturing audience loyalty in the data age will interestingly lie in the organization’s capacity to humanize engagement.  

Journalist’s Safety is Key to Their Autonomy- 

Cybersecurity should be considered as the principal dogma of data age journalism. Keeping both journalists and data secure is fundamental for public-interest journalism in an age where illegal surveillance and cyberwars are shaping geo-politics behind the scenes.  

Ventures and journalists engaged in investigative projects will have to be familiarized with encryption services, multiple authentication protocols and security processes. 

Visualize Data to Move People to Act- 

Visualization of data establishes a fact that everyone suspects, but find hard to prove, that generally – “everything is connected.” ICIJ Data and Research Unit Editor Mar Cabra, while working on the ‘Panama Papers’ observed that most reporters while visualizing the data would actually go- “Oh my God, now I can see it so clearly. This person is connected to this person and I had missed this connection before.” Data visualization allows both audience and reporters to understand the dynamics of unstructured data facilitating speedy comprehension of deep and extensive issues.  

Raw data encumbers true comprehension and can be overwhelming. Solution is the integration of custom built or light-weight dashboards that streamlines processing of unstructured data.  

Innovate Revenue and Production Models- 

Existing advertising models have outlasted their useful years. Now, the evolution of journalistic ventures requires the ability to re-imagine revenue models.  

 Intelligent monetization will move away from rampant attention exploitation, to actual industry and audience betterment.  Exchange of services, formation of data-sharing consortiums, strategic project collaboration and audience sharing, first-party data-backed engagements, crowdsourced stories and more will lower expenditure and improve operational flexibility. Reclaiming capitalism will help news organizations find new levels of financial buoyancy.  

For better or worse, the foreseeable future of journalism will contain phases of disruption and re-consolidation. What we at Meradesh are betting on is that at the end: public-interest journalism wins. 

We collaborate with news outlets focused on producing compelling and data-backed reportage. Our technological support covers aspects of database creation, news production, first-party data and distribution. You can mail us at connect@meradesh.org