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Guerrilla Journalism: Newsroom Innovation

SNA (Tokyo) — Guerrilla Journalism speaks to Meg Heckman, professor at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism, about the progress and prospects for newsroom innovation.


Michael Penn: Welcome back to a new episode of Guerrilla Journalism. Today we’ll speak to Meg Heckman. She is a professor at Northeastern University in the United States. We’re going to speak today about newsroom innovation. Let’s get right into it. How are newsrooms doing in terms of their technology. Are they up to par? Are they keeping up with the technological curve?

Meg Heckman: Well, it depends on the type of newsroom that you’re talking about. And I think what I’ve been seeing both in my research and my professional practice because I worked in newspapers on the digital side for a number of years before becoming a professor is kind of a tale of two news ecosystems. At the national level and international level, you have some really fantastic, fascinating and exciting innovation happening at these elite publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, VICE, Vox — all of those. They have these interesting mobile strategies. They have smart social strategies. They’re experimenting with augmented reality, virtual reality, Artificial Intelligence: all of those buzzwords that we’re talking about in journalism right now. And then we move down to the local level where the type of watchdog community journalism that is absolutely vital to a functioning democracy is happening, and those newsrooms, it’s a little bit more of a mixed bag. You know, I think the newsrooms that I featured in that Columbia Journalism Review article about Facebook chatbots, there are a lot of really creative, smart people in those newsrooms who are experimenting with ways to serve their audiences with emerging technologies, but at the same time there are a lot of limitations in terms of resources, both financial and human; the availability of technology and what audiences need and want in those environments.

Michael Penn: What is one of the innovative ideas that you expect will take off in the next few years in these newsrooms?

Meg Heckman: So my colleague John Wihbey and I presented a paper this summer about the lack of mobile innovation in local newsrooms and we found this real mixed bag of how local newsrooms were engaging with mobile technology. We discovered that most editors that we talked to understood that it was really important and they understood that their audiences were on mobile. But when you looked at the technical specs for their websites, there was kind of this disconnect, where they were not optimizing content delivery for mobile platforms. The ad stacks were all over the place, and in some cases some sites weren’t responsive at all. Now our study was very small, and it was what we hope is the beginning of some ongoing research into this area. So I would hope that local publishers, particularly those that are locally owned and are trying really hard to hang in there and stay successful and stay strong, really devote attention to mobile publishing and mobile first strategies. It’s tricky because it almost creates this paradoxical situation (and in fact we are calling what we found in the local mobile paradox), because it’s hard to devote time and resources to an audience that isn’t there yet. But you also can’t get that audience onto your site if you have a crummy mobile experience. So that type of frustrating paradoxical strategy situation is is something that so many local newsrooms face.

Michael Penn: If some of these innovative ideas do become more widespread, do you think that this is going to result in news becoming more wide than deep, having more breadth and depth? How is that going to play out?

Meg Heckman: You know, it’s definitely a risk and I think that’s something that becomes more of a risk in local newsrooms that are just strapped for time, strapped for people. But this technology can also equip investigative journalists with tools to do their job better. So I’m at Northeastern University in Boston and we had this big conference last Friday about Artificial Intelligence, the media and democracy. And I led a panel with three journalists who were using Artificial Intelligence in various ways. And it was remarkable what we are able to have Artificial Intelligence do for us. So, you know, the common example you always get is writing games stories or basic market reports. And I always thought, oh well, that’s neat. But, like, how much time is that actually saving in a newsroom, like this just a marketing thing. Well, it turns out it’s saving a lot of time and it’s freeing up journalists to do deeper investigations. There’s also technology that’s allowing us to work with documents and data in a quicker, cleaner way. It can’t do anything everything yet, and that’s probably a good thing because if it could we wouldn’t have jobs. So what we’re seeing, I hope, is if this type of emerging technology is deployed smartly and made available to every shape and size of newsroom. And that’s really important because it’s too easy to have this fancy new technology concentrated in these urban elite news organizations that are doing great things. Like I don’t in any way want to devalue the work that’s happening there. But we also want to make sure that that’s accessible to capital city newspapers all over the country, or investigative startups that we’re seeing both in the US and abroad, to organizations that are maybe pushing the boundaries of what is journalism and what is activism. You know we want to have those tools available to everyone in a way that can give us time to do the type of deep investigative work that you’re talking about and still serve the curation needs of our audiences.

Michael Penn: In your Columbia Journalism Review article you spoke about chatbots. What are chatbots?

Meg Heckman: Chatbot is kind of a term that’s used to describe any type of computer program that can interact with you. And I think that’s a wildly oversimplified definition. So the best way it was explained to me is it’s kind of like a Choose Your Own Adventure book that many of us read when we were kids, where you got to the end of the chapter and you could decide to flip to Page 10 and you would get one version of the story, or you could flip to Page 20 and you’d get a different version of the story. And essentially what you’re doing when you’re interacting with that type of very simple chatbots that I wrote about in this story is you are giving a response or asking a question and the bot is pulling from a number of possible answers. And so the… and there’s a good chance that the people watching this video have probably interacted with a chatbot and not realized it. A lot of times if you’re on Facebook and you hop onto a local business page and the little messenger box pops up and it says, you know, do you have a question for this business. Would you like to know what we’re open? What our website is? That there’s a good chance that that is some type of a chatbot-like program, and that is on the super, super simple end of the description.

Michael Penn: How can this be utilized by newsrooms?

Meg Heckman: So in one of the newsrooms that I featured. It was the newspaper in Fort Collins, Colorado, and the editors there were using a chatbot that they named “Elexi” to help inform readers about the most recent elections, and so readers could ask questions like, “Where do I vote?” “Who’s running in my district?” “Where can I go for more information about this candidate or this issue?” And so it was almost like they were just pulling from a database or a list of stories to serve the needs of these readers. And one of the things that I thought was really interesting with the way that this particular newsroom handled the technology was they made a video to explain it to their audience, because one of the things that they were concerned about was that they might accidentally fool their audience into thinking that they were talking to a person. And you know no malice, no sneakiness, just this technology is so new. It’s not yet safe to assume that everybody who is interacting with the news organizations’ digital products is going to know what it is. So they made this video. It was really smart. It was really accessible, and it was an experiment both for the newsroom and the community. Now I have no idea if Facebook-based chatbots are going to be a thing going forward. But what this moment I think they can teach us is that this… what happened at that paper in Colorado was a really good example of how to handle emerging technology and experimenting with emerging technology in a way that serves both the need to come up with new ways to distribute news and serve audiences, while at the same time being really transparent and also acting as kind of a tech teacher to your subscribers in your community.

Michael Penn: Aside from this one example, do you see other ways that chatbots could be used or utilized in various newsrooms around the country and around the world?

Meg Heckman: I could really see a chatbot being useful for the type of tasks that can take up a lot of time in a local newsroom. So to go back to our earlier conversation about saving time so reporters can do reporting. You know, how often anybody’s worked a local newsroom, you know, you get the phone call or you get the e-mail about, “Hey, what was the sports scores last night” for a very specific high school sport? Or, “Hey, when is the Garden Club having its Tuesday meeting?” And those are all great questions to be directed at a local paper, but wouldn’t it be nice if even 50% of those could be handled by a chatbot in a transparent way, and it just, we all know how chaotic newsrooms are. There’s probably a chance that that chatbot would get back to the e-mailer quicker and more accurately than, you know, relying on whoever happens to be looking at the shared e-mail account on any given day. So that would be nice. Yeah, I think those… I think, elections and just kind of timesaving would be useful. Calendar events is another one that I’d be really interested to see somebody experiment with. You know how often have, you know, you’re in a community that you’ve maybe never been to before. You’re there on a Saturday night and you want to know where’s a good place to get a certain kind of food or see a certain kind of band. And I think a chatbot could be really cool for that.

Michael Penn: So in the newsrooms that are developing now, what you see is the proportion of people in the newsroom who are actually journalists in the traditional sense and those who are basically tech people and keeping up with those sides of things? It seems like there needs to be some sort of division there. What will it be?

Meg Heckman: Well, I think there can’t be a line between who is a journalist and who is a tech person anymore, or at the very least those two… those two populations need to overlap and need to be speaking each others’ languages. So the program that I teach in here at Northeastern, I teach primarily in our Media Innovation graduate program, and we teach computer code from day one. You know, even if it’s not coming from the journalism faculty, we collaborate with people in computer science and information technology to make sure that that’s baked into our graduate curriculum. We’ve just started this year a new interest group with undergraduates who are interested in double majoring in journalism and computer science or information technology. And I think in four years, when those students are graduating, they are going to infuse a really different culture into newsrooms in terms of the relationship between journalists and technologists. Now certainly I think at least for the next ten or fifteen years we will continue to need to have, and want to have, people who are deeply steeped in the culture of traditional newsrooms, the culture of traditional journalism, and people who are deeply steeped in the history of technology and tech implementation in newsrooms. But I think the new hires, the students that we are training and graduating and placing in various jobs, they’re going to start to act as an intermediary between those two populations. And I think eventually the profession of journalism is going to evolve, and that I mean it has to evolve. We have to be tech savvy, not just for day-to-day newsroom operations, but to be able to act as watchdogs of these major tech companies that are influencing our lives at every level.

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