Posted by: structureofnews | March 6, 2011

First Thing We Do…

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” – From Henry VI, Part 2, by William Shakespeare

Proving that journalists are not an unusually cursed breed – only normally cursed – this piece by the New York Times talks about how technology, and particularly more powerful semantic software and analytical tools are supplanting – and replacing – high-priced lawyers.  It gives the example of the hordes of lawyers and paralegals needed to wade through millions of pages of documents in a case 20-some years ago, and how software can plow through the same throve of papers faster and cheaper today.

It quotes Tom Mitchell of Carnegie Mellon University:

“We’re at the beginning of a 10-year period where we’re going to transition from computers that can’t understand language to a point where computers can understand quite a bit about language.”

It’s not just that computers are doing a better and better job of understanding semantics and language; it’s that smarter tools can provide better better and quicker ways of seeing patterns in masses of information.  Tracing networks of messages, for example, can show you who are the key people in any group; looking for key concepts in a stack of papers can help focus on the documents that really matter; and so on.  And all this cheaper than paying lawyers by the hour. Great for clients; bad for lawyers.

Mike Lynch, the founder of Autonomy (an e-discovery company based in Britain), is convinced that “legal is a sector that will likely employ fewer, not more, people in the U.S. in the future.” He estimated that the shift from manual document discovery to e-discovery would lead to a manpower reduction in which one lawyer would suffice for work that once required 500 and that the newest generation of software, which can detect duplicates and find clusters of important documents on a particular topic, could cut the head count by another 50 percent.

Misery loves company, so at some level there’s comfort in knowing that other knowledge/information-based professionals are going through what we’re going through as well.  But that doesn’t really help us – or them – map out a better future.

What the piece points to is the broader trends: Whether we like it or not, there’s an active arms race going on in information technology, and we need to keep as up-to-date as we can – both so that we can use those tools, as well as to understand what parts of our jobs may be going away to new competitors.  As lawyers have learned – and it’s not like this is a new lesson for us – barriers to entry to many professions are much lower these days, and competition can come from unexpected areas, including from non-journalists (and non-lawyers.)   But despite all that, there is clearly value in sifting and analyzing information, as witnessed by the people trying to crowd into that field.

The trick is to figure out our competitive edge as an industry, or at least as an organization.  If I had a magic bullet I’d be rich.  Or at least richer.

But I’ll keep going back to the an old theme: We’re one of the few industries, at least for the moment, of being in the business of both creating some raw materials of information analysis (ie, news reports) as well as then analyzing it.  But we don’t do a good job of building the building blocks of news to make it easy for us to analyze our own reports.  So we squander an opportunity and allow others to deploy technology – often technology that we can’t afford – to beat us at our own game.

This doesn’t apply to analyzing large troves of public data, of course.  But it does apply to trawling through our own news reports and making more sense out of the disparate bits of information, especially on areas that we cover intensively.

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