Skip to main content

Technology isn't something that just happens to your newsroom

I’ve come away from the Online News Association conference with a really familiar feeling: somewhere between unsettled and frustrated. Not at journalists, I hasten to add, who are doing important, democratic work despite shrinking budgets and adverse conditions. But a little bit at the business sides of their organizations, and certainly at the ecosystem of vendors and evangelists that circle them.

Some quick observations:

Work on inclusion in the newsroom has stagnated in most organizations, despite the very real impacts this has on audiences and communities who depend on newsrooms to tell their stories and speak truth to power on their behalf. There is lip service here and there, but not a lot of true equity-sharing.

A few people on stage and elsewhere expressed the opinion that it doesn’t matter if journalists stay on X or not, despite the steep rise in hate on the platform. They might not be comfortable with Elon Musk, but the platform would chug along whether they were participating or not, so they might as well be there if they got something out of it.

AI vendors are out in force, expressing ways in which their software can speed up newsroom tasks, with little time being spent on the functional realities of their products or the issues this can create.

More newsrooms than I would expect are spending time writing and maintaining their own content management systems rather than leveraging existing open source software and collaborating with other organizations.

The feeling it’s left me with is similar to the one I felt when I co-founded Elgg in higher education. At least at the time, there was very little diversity in higher education decision-making; meanwhile, the software tools being deployed made it harder to learn, were inaccessible to many people, locked teaching and learning behind exploitative license agreements, and were being sold for seven figure sums. It didn’t feel right that something as fundamentally important to society as education was being locked down to a narrow demographic of decision-makers and strip-mined for value by rent-seekers. (It must be acknowledged that while accessible open source tools in education are now commonplace, rent-seekers like Blackboard still do a lot of business.)

To briefly return to each of those observations in turn:

You need diverse points of view in a newsroom (both in editorial and management) in order to be able to reflect the communities you’re both covering and trying to reach. A diverse team is more resilient; diverse teams are smarter and do better work.

Journalists have outsize power with regards to a platform like X. They create much of the content that will be shared and discovered on the platform. Their actions matter, and they can effect change in the tech industry. I think this speaks to how disempowered newsrooms have felt at the hands of technology changes over the last decade or two — but it need not be the case.

AI seems like magic but is more like a magic trick. Meredith Broussard’s discussion on recognizing inequalities in artificial intelligence is arguably vital for anyone considering adopting AI. There are genuine use cases for the technology, but her definition of techno-chauvinism — the assumption that technical solutions are better than human ones — rings true in this case.

And development teams should spend most of their time working on projects that add value to their newsroom. Working to maintain commodity technology (as in, maintaining the exact same thing hundreds of other teams are building, like a CMS) more than about 20% of the time is a waste of very scant resources. Generally, development teams should be spending their time building differentiated technology.

Every newsroom needs nuanced technical advice, but not every newsroom can afford to hire a CTO. A few organizations offer platforms, technical and business advice, and fractional technical leadership as a service for newsrooms. They’re a vital part of the ecosystem — and the truth is that some larger newsrooms need something similar. It’s all too easy to fall prey to the hype cycle, and to continue to believe that the internet is something that happens to you rather than something newsrooms can help shape and change according to their needs.

As I’ve written before, I would like to see a kind of tech union for newsrooms that would provide technical advice and commodity technology under an open source license, and then represent newsrooms in technical forums like the W3C. If the internet is a network of people, then journalism is a way for their stories to be told, and for the truth about abuses of power and systemic imbalances to come to light. It should be a virtuous relationship, and I believe it can be. I also believe it is far from this right now.

· Posts