The Human Strain

Notes from Mesh's "Future of News" panel

Perhaps it’s a bit cliché for a panel about the future of news to discuss how humans and computers will interact, but the good news is that the future of journalism includes humans. The tricky part will be figuring out how to pay for them.

Yesterday at the Mesh Web conference in Toronto, Globe And Mail communities editor Mathew Ingram moderated “The Future of News,” a panel that included David Cohn, the founder of crowd-funded journalism site, Rachel Nixon, the global news director of participatory journalism site NowPublic, and Techmeme founder Gabe Rivera.

Rivera reinforced the importance of human editing when he spoke about his realization late last year that an algorithm alone wasn’t enough to select the headlines for his popular technology news aggregation Web site.

“It got to a certain point where I recognized that the fastest way to improve the site was to put a human in the loop and have them involved in the same decisions that the algorithm performs,” he said.

Ingram, who’s also one of the founders of Mesh, joked that Rivera’s embrace of human editing was “something us human beings can feel pretty good about.” With the people versus computers issue addressed, the panel discussed whether the humans known as citizen journalists would partly replace traditional reporters in the coming years.

“I don’t think it’s a question of replacing,” Nixon said. “I think what citizen media or participatory media helps is to add a different voice to the conversation and give people a different perspective.”

Cohn said that he’s a “big believer” in citizen journalism but that “it has some limits.” That’s one reason why his non-profit focuses on crowd-funding, rather than crowd-sourcing. The idea is to experiment with a new way to pay for journalism.

“I’m trying to distribute the cost rather than the work of reporting,” he said. “…I never try to sell it as a silver bullet because there’s no such thing. I think what the journalism industry needs right now is lots of little experiments. We need 10,000 start-ups of which 8,000 will fail, 1,900 will teeter for a few years and 100 will come out with different ways to come up with revenue.”

Nixon echoed the need for experimentation, noting that it’s difficult for large news organizations to move quickly enough to try new things.

“It’s clear what the problem is,” she said. “The rise of the Internet mixed with ubiquitous content and the economic crisis equals falling revenues. It’s really important to experiment because what works for one organization will not work for another. I think the old adage is true that it’s really important to be prepared to fail; and if you’re going to fail, do it quickly.”

An audience member asked if the changes taking place in journalism could result in a decline in media ethics, or standards such as objectivity.

“I’m not sure I agree that traditional journalists were always objective,” said Nixon, who previously worked for BBC News. “But as far as participatory journalism goes, one key thing about our site is it’s possible to be transparent about your beliefs and where you’re coming from.”

Cohn joked that a classmate of his had cheated on a journalism ethics exam at Columbia University.

“It does come down to transparency and the idea of objectivity is little bit of a farce,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s really possible. For me, accuracy and thoroughness and transparency are the three most important values.”

Rivera noted that some technology news sites such as TechCrunch face criticism for reporting rumors that turn out to be false. “But you’ve got to be willing to have bad information if you want to have rumors that turn out to be true,” he said.

At that point, Ingram carried the microphone to an audience member with a question. At the same time, a fellow organizer told him there was a question submitted via Twitter. Ingram allowed the Twitter question to go first.

“Let’s save the human being for last,” he said.

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Craig Silverman is the editor of and the author of Regret The Error: How Media Mistakes Pollute the Press and Imperil Free Speech. He is also the editorial director of and a columnist for the Toronto Star.