AF: That could be useful for news aggregators, but I can also see how it could be useful for media criticism, which often depends on reading the archived body of work on a single topic to see where the press got it right and got it wrong.

JH: Right, it tracks stories over time to see how information gets added or revised. There’s also automatic question answering, not just a search, which answers a question like “Name the participants in event X,” or “Describe a certain trial.” You can do search, and a lot of retrieval ranks relevance, and you can hope the most relevant item rises to the top.

AF: Isn’t that what librarians do?

JH: I take my hat off to every librarian, but they’re not always available and may not have the expertise or resources. Certainly some people are better at Web search than others, but [the state of Web search] is not state of the art. The hope of collaboration is to develop better technologies to manage and search information.

AF: How do you make sure that the practical applications that come out of this program aren’t just innovative and “cool,” with lots of bells and whistles, but really journalism, or something that helps journalists?

BG: These students will be taking RW1, law, ethics, and the history of journalism, real meat and potatoes issues that concern journalism. But at a certain point, it’s almost wrong to look at this like training someone in law to practice law the way it’s always been practiced, or training someone in medicine to practice medicine the way it’s always been practiced. A lot of this is giving really smart young people the background skills they need to go develop and innovate things that you and I sitting in this office can’t imagine.

AF: What about the kind of innovations that are often new and useful, but aren’t pure journalism, in that they don’t involve reporting, or the journalism of verification.

BG: In its strictest sense, it may not involve any original reporting. But suppose you could come up with some app that could tell you in real time what crimes have been committed on the street that you’re walking down? Would that be journalism or not? Well, people read newspapers to find out what crime stories are going on in their neighborhood, and it’s all very random—if some reporter gets sick there might not be any stories about crime that day in the newspaper. So it may not be a 6,000-word magazine article, but it’s information that really helps people.

One of the things I really like to analyze is the property tax burden which is really unequally shared, not here in the city, but in the suburbs. So could you create a database that allows people to see how property tax rates are rendered in the community—which is all publicly available—play around with it, and size it up against purchase prices of those houses and what they’re probably worth now? A tool like that, if it was successful, everybody in the neighborhood would use it, but it would also give you really useful information about whether the tax burden is being equitably or inequitably distributed across a community. A reporter could sit down and get all this paper and put together their own little Excel program and come up with something, everybody would find it really interesting, and the next day it would be obsolete. Because the database is constantly getting updated.

So is that journalism? If your editor asked you to do a story on unfair property tax distribution, I think you would agree that is a journalistically valid thing. But is that something you should sit there with two big stacks of papers for six months? Probably not. And if you create a feed that’s pulling the information from the tax assessor’s office, then actually you build it and whoosh [sound of rocket taking off].

AF: So robot journalists—we’re being replaced by robots?

BG: Right, robots ([aughs]. But you could also use it as a tool from which you could be writing a lot of really interesting stories. For years down the road.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.