Frédéric Filloux on his new job, digital disruption and the one thing every newsroom should avoid

There are a lot of reasons to dread Mondays: The oncoming tide of emails, getting out of bed early and the rush of (generally unpleasant) news.

But Mondays also mean a new post on Monday Note, a Medium blog tracking changes in the publishing industry that's like crack for future-of-news wonks. Monday Note was founded by Frédéric Filloux, a longtime journalist and media thinker who's currently working on a big problem: How can news organizations and consumers make good journalism stand out amid a sea of vapid content?

But Filloux has help to answer that question. Today, the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford announced that Filloux would remain at the university for six months as a Senior Research Fellow. There, he'll work on his News Quality Scoring Project, which seeks to surface quality journalism using algorithms and machine learning.

Below is a conversation with Filloux about his six-month residency at Stanford University, his ongoing project and what the digital disruption of the past year means for publishers.

Can you describe what you'll be working on at JSK? Why did they decide to take the unprecedented step of bringing you back for a residency?

The News Quality Scoring project is about surfacing quality contents from the web by using machine learning algorithms. The goal is to perform this task at scale in order to process massive amounts of information.

By quality, I mean value-added journalistic production as opposed to commoditized news.

NQS is aimed at correcting an imbalance in the news economy, which is the absence of correlation between production costs associated with good journalism and its economic value from a publisher's perspective.

Today, a news organization charges the same rate for its advertising spot regardless of the editorial content that sits next to it. Whether it is a three-week investigative piece that costs $50,000 to produce, or a news wrap-up hastily put together by an intern, the CPM (Cost per Thousand impressions) of a banner will be exactly the same.

The beneficiaries of NQS will be the publishers, the distribution platforms, the public and the advertising community. Once properly set, the system will require almost no human intervention. it is designed to process large flows of information and in real-time.

As for the question on why the JSK granted me this residency, it might be better to ask them. I simply think that we share the same values and the same concerns for the future of great journalism, and they think that my project could be an effective contribution to its sustainability. I'm really grateful for this opportunity. The JSK and Stanford are the most stimulating environment you can dream of.

What has your work on The News Quality Scoring Project revealed so far? Are there any takeaways for news organizations yet?

From my perspective, news organizations are not very good at conveying the notion of quality. Very few of them provide information on the authorship for instance which is a key element to express the quality of a news piece.

The industry as a whole doesn't help. Two examples: I wanted to put together a comprehensive list of journalism awards laureates but also nominees granted in the United States over the last 10 years. Journalism awards were part of the dozens of "signals" I will use to detect quality. I first contacted a group of 65 organizations to ask for their list; not a single of them was able to give me the data. It wasn't a matter of confidentiality, simply no one keeps a structured trace of J-awards, other than web sites that I will have to scrape at some point.

My other idea was to create some automated vetting of professional journalists by matching bylines and membership of professional organizations. I was kindly helped by the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri for that work; it went nowhere as not a single organizations were willing to give us the list of their members, regardless of our commitment to keep the data confidential (the idea was simply to get a y/n, this byline shows up in a recognized news organizations).

Finally, we decided to settle the issues by using deep learning algorithms: We built a training set of thousands of stories properly labeled from bad (no value-added) to great (solid journalistic work, depth, density), and we inject it into a neural network. This methodology will solve issues like the number of "signals" and their weight, relevance, reliability, etc. In reality, it will be much more complicated as we will have several layers of assessment (including some manual samplings), but I'm quite confident we'll come up with a reliable model.

We're more than halfway through 2017 now. In your mind, which media trends defined this year?

The most obvious one is misinformation. Not only deliberate fake news that is now produced at an industrial scale in nearly every electoral process but "junk news" that is everywhere — including in reputable media which, out of a short-sighted greed, scatter their pages with Taboola or Outbrain modules of junk contents. The fact that serious newsrooms do not revolt against this puzzles me.

The other trend is the growing dominance of platforms — especially Facebook — in news distribution. The main consequence is the dilution of the notion of brand (read: trusted news brand) and the promotion of superficiality to the detriment of in-depth journalism that is badly needed in a context of receding democracy.

How do you see the media landscape changing in the next year?

I think we haven't hit the bottom yet. Those who still rely massively on advertising will suffer as the share of the platforms will continue to increase.

Those who will survive will be: (a) the ones with a dominant subscription model, preferably a sophisticated one, with multiple products at different prices to address the market in the most granular way; (b) the most creativity advertising-wise: I'm a true believer in fewer ads but better ads, like branded content; news media are in the best possible position to take advantage of this market opportunity and (c), the one who will invest the most in technology: CMS; super-fast sites and apps, personalizations, smart recommendation engines, etc. That will be the key differentiator; based on this you can already bet on who will be here in three years and who will not.

Print will continue to decline in both ads and circulation. We'll see two attitudes: those who will spend a great deal of energy and money to delay the inevitable — these ones will waste their time and remain distracted by this life-support activity — others (a minority), will choose to accelerate the demise of print, freeing time, resources and talent to innovate.

Again, you can already see who will fall in which category.

We might see an interesting battle between The New York Times and The Washington Post for a decisive international expansion. There is a huge potential to get a piece of the global English-speaking college educated elite... But it will require a substantial effort and imagination.

Will you continue to publish on Monday Note? Will you stay on Medium?

In the next 6-9 months, my priority will be the News Quality Scoring Project. I will continue to publish the Monday Note, not every week though, and essentially to serve my project: exploring things, floating ideas. My friend Jean-Louis will maintain his weekly presence, he has a large audience, different than mine.

As for Medium, I'm both disappointed and concerned. I really thought it was going to be to Wordpress what MacOS had been to MS-DOS. But they chose not to develop the publishing tools that I and hundreds of thousands of others would have been happy to pay for. I remain a big fan of the platform and its team, and I still hope for a strategic shift.

If you could dispense one piece of advice to executives at media companies, what would it be?

Stop giving away your brand, your identity, your readership, your data to platforms; they will eat your lunch and the pantry; platforms are great for a small number of things: brand awareness, customers acquisitions, all sorts of testing.

But also:

  • Refocus on what you do best. Unique stuff that will create a real barrier to entry. Like value-added journalism. Cut the commodity news — or find a way to industrialize its production by relying on tech.
  • Invest in technology to serve your reader (yes, each of them, individually) and produce news in an efficient way.
  • Streamline the production, reduce hierarchies, hire people who are hungry and audacious.
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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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