We’ve talked about the atomic unit of news before – what’s the basic building block of what we do. For many journalists, it’s the story, because in many ways that’s what they produce each day, and what they offer to the world as a finished product.
I’ve argued here that we need to get past that thinking, because the story – and certainly the daily story – as the basic unit of news is less and less valuable in a world where readers come to it weeks and months later, and have access to a wealth of archives. Politifact, for example, deconstructs the story and turns what are essentially data fields into the building blocks of its pages. Jeff Jarvis has argued that the topic is the new basic unit, and he makes some fair points there, although it’s harder to see how that works in practice.
The broader issue, at least to me, and beyond communications school semantics, is how we get value out of what we do – both in monetary and public interest terms. Articles age rapidly and are increasingly unable to cover their cost of production, at least in any scalable system. So rethinking what we do – getting beyond just filing a story – is critical if we’re to create new journalism products that sustain us and society. Or that’s the core idea behind structured journalism.
So a recent New York Times story that looks at it from the other side caught my eye. The gist is that smart financial traders are building programs that vacuum up streams of information – news, comments, twitter feeds and the like – then analyzing them to get a sense of what the market is saying (or feeling) and then automatically trading on it. This sort of thing was bound to happen – in fact, it’s a bit of a mystery why it hasn’t happened sooner.
Many of the robo-readers look beyond the numbers and try to analyze market sentiment, that intuitive feeling investors have about the markets….
Vince Fioramonti, a portfolio manager at Alpha Equity Management, a $185 million equities fund in Hartford, uses Thomson Reuters software to measure sentiment over weeks, rather than minutes or hours, and pumps that information directly into his fund’s trading systems.
“It is an aggregate effect,” Mr. Fioramonti said. “These things give you the ability to assimilate more information.”
In other words, never mind the story – what these programs do is take atoms (stories) and mash them up into molecules of ideas or sentiment. It’s the wisdom of crowds applied to information flows. If there are lots of mentions of IBM on twitter feeds, something is probably happening at IBM. If lots of market reports are mentioning upbeat sentiment, then the market is probably feeling bullish.
It’s another way of creating more value out of what we do each day – for example, out of those mindless, instantly forgettable hourly market reports that wire service reporters churn out with distressing regularity. (I know – I used to do it at Reuters.)
In this case, some of that value is being captured by news organizations – the story mentions what Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters are doing – but a great deal of it is being done by other people. Good for them – they’ve found additional value in the products we turn out, in the same way that a smart computer-assisted reporter finds value and patterns in masses of public data and information.
But it also highlights how much value we as an industry aren’t capturing. There is value in creating not just the atoms of news, but the molecules as well – in fact, probably more value.
Smart people are deploying ever more powerful technologies to parse and understand the words we write and turning it into something more understandable and valuable in aggregate; and here we are, the people we write those words, with the ability to write them in a more structured and easily aggregatable format to begin with, so that our words will be more valuable and our readers lives easier – and we don’t.
Ánd so we cede ground to others or try to compete in an information technology arms race that only the very well-heeled can win.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t use smart – and cheap – technologies to help us report and create information products. But we should get past the elemental things that we do and think more about what we can do with them. And what money we’re leaving on the table.