Monday, October 24, 2005

Journalists are people too

There seems to be much wailing and gnashing of teeth about how 1.0 Old Media is, and how journalists should wake up about their roles changing to something that doesn't involve old school objective journalism. Mark Pincus even floated the idea of making most journalists part time, or something.

i would also transform my papers to more of an model where most of my editorial/writing staff are part timers and a lot of my content is coming from other sources - ie. drastically lower my cost of content creation while increasing community involvement.

I'm not a huge believer in citizen journalism as a replacement for real journalists, especially in a regional context with small audiences. OJR did a piece on this that is relevant.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not arguing that citizen journalism isn't worthwhile - I would argue that it's not a replacement, it's merely an adjunct to the primary, irreplaceable work of trained journos. Mark's vision of regional newspaper journalists being fired en masse and rehired (maybe) as casual workers to edit amateurs' unpaid contributions is an economic rationalist's wet dream, but would be a disaster in practice. Regional papers work on the unspoken contract between the paper and the community that the paper spends money on reporting local news, the community spends money to buy ads. If the paper stops spending money on reporting local news and hopes (in vain) that the community will do that work for them just as well, the community will not see any reward for their continued advertising support of the paper.

Now, having said that, there is another possible replacement for journalists which does not involve the cult of the amateur. That is the cult of the machine. Google is the king of the algorithm, but it is which is more openly trying to replace journalists with machines that think like journalists, as the OJR subeditor recognises by entitling Mark Glaser's story Low-key tries to recreate a journalist's brain with computers.
You would expect Topix to get under the skin of grizzled news veterans. There are no trained editors, and no advertising sales force. When I visited the office, I asked co-founder and CEO Rich Skrenta, 38, about this problem, and he pointed at a journalism textbook on the table.

"We might be lay people, but we can study the field," Skrenta said. "That's what programmers do. The people who program systems at Blue Cross are not experts in HIPPA compliance. They have to learn all this to implement the thing. We're so far away from some of the thorny issues of journalism, we're not the ones going to jail for not revealing our sources. We're down at the level of the person taking the press release. If we do that right, then maybe we can move to the next level up."

I think of as being like one of those 50s-style room-size computers where Rich Skrenta (CEO) and Chris Tolles (marketing VP) and the boys throw in journalism textbooks and newspapers and boxes of press releases in a funnel at one end and out the other rolls an assembly-line assortment of topics. If only I was writing this for Suck back in the day and I had Terry Colon to illustrate that mental image. Oh well, I guess every hardcore blogger wishes that.

Quite apart from bile from scared journalists, this reliance on algorithms instead of tagging or folksonomies at Topix has drawn criticism from Web 2.0 adherents, with even the usually 100% gushingly positive Michael Arrington from TechCrunch allowing a bit of snigger to slip through in his coverage of a conference panel:

In our opinion the seating of the panelists was symbolic when thinking about their companies from a web 2.0 perspective. Left to right, you had Chris Tolles (, Jim Pitkow (moreover), Scott Rafer (feedster), Tantek Celik (technorati), and Om Malik.

Nice attempted save later on Mike, but that was rather mean of you all the same. It's interesting to note that the two most 1.0-ish companies have "flipped" for valuations of US$64 million and US$30 million respectively, while Technorati is undergoing a backlash of its own. does with robot algorithms on a huge scale what Gabe Rivera does at Memeorandum on a tiny but human scale. There's no question that Memeorandum has better quality, but it runs to only two pages while Topix boasts of 300,000 topic pages. There has to be a balance struck between the two, IMO. I don't subscribe to the Google theory that algorithms can solve everything. There is still a place for the human as "gatekeeper", one of the core functions of journalism. The question is how much of modern journalists' professionalism has to be sacrificed to fit this new kind of gatekeeper role.


Anonymous Rich Skrenta said...

Cool post. :-)

10:33 am, October 28, 2005  
Blogger Paul Montgomery said...

Thanks Rich! I've been reading all I can get my hands on about in preparation for Tinfinger, and I even listened to all of Chris's podcast interviews.

I guess that after dealing with humans in the ODP you got sick of them and decided to cast your lot with our future robot masters. I can't blame you, but I wish you'd hired a real live human journo instead of buying textbooks... :P

11:16 am, October 28, 2005  
Anonymous rich skrenta said...

Hey, let's chat! rich at topix dot net.

4:02 pm, October 28, 2005  

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