The next big thing in journalism might be algorithm reporters

News organizations in the near future may include special-ops teams of investigative reporters who scrutinize algorithms, regularly launch large ephemeral projects to highlight key events, and — thanks to loosened FCC rules under chairman Ajit Pai — find new ownership under a handful of consolidating megacorporations.

Those are a few of the issues highlighted in the Future Today Institute’s 11th annual Tech Trends Report, released this morning at SXSW. The Future Today Institute specifically identified 14 trends for news media that have a high degree of certainty and a possible immediate impact. The report urges news organizations to “act now” on these trends.

The Future Today Institute was founded by futurist Amy Webb, well known in the journalism industry for her always fun, sometimes dour tech trend presentations at the annual Online News Association conference. Though Webb’s predictions can read as prognostic poppycock, her track record strongly suggests otherwise.

The “act now” trends include:

Computational Journalism. Computer-assisted reporting isn’t exactly a new idea (it’s been on FTI’s list for four years and a fixture in newsrooms for decades), but the report suggests “increased demand” for reporters with these skill sets in the immediate future.

I-Teams For Algorithms and Data. As algorithms and datasets govern the daily lives of more and more people through government, law enforcement, schools and finance, news organizations need the expertise to analyze them for bias and understanding.

Voice Interfaces For News and Books. Alexa and similar devices are now in millions of homes throughout the world. Journalists have a tremendous opportunity to interpret natural human language to offer thoughtful and nuanced answers to complicated questions that users ask of them.

Crowdlearning. There are valuable questions hidden in the passive information users provide. Think Google searches, location data and public health-related records. Newsrooms have already started to use this information to inform stories, like when Google Trends revealed residents of the United Kingdom were searching "What is the EU?" in the days after passing Brexit.

Digital Frailty. The internet swallows information faster than we can archive it. Any journalist who has published information online knows the feeling of losing archives after a website update or backend failure. What obligation do news organizations have to protect feeble online data?

Radical Transparency. Transparency is the new byline. As reporting becomes more complex (think data analysis, algorithms and other complex tools), news organizations have a duty to reveal how they reached their conclusions.

Limited-Edition News Products. Temporary podcasts, newsletters, chatbots and text message flurries about topics like weather events, big sports games or elections are increasingly common. They also provide interesting opportunities for revenue, audience engagement and data collection.

One-To-Few Publishing. While the industry pushes to scale larger in some areas, niche publications might make more sense. Newsrooms have learned to value loyalty over “drive-by clicks.” Fewer audiences are more “sticky” than those who follow a niche topic.

Notification Layers. Once a novelty, notifications now litter the lock screens of devices everywhere. News organizations need to find ways to limit user frustration and stand out among the noise.

Transparency in Metrics. We have a lot of problems with analytics data. For one, it’s 2018 and some newsrooms still don’t allow reporters to see data. For another, there’s increasing evidence that numbers from various organizations don’t match up and may not even measure what they purport to be measuring. It’s time for more transparency on all sides of this conversation.

Offline Is The New Online. Companies like Apple and Google have configured tools to work in areas without access to data. News organizations that provide similar “offline” experiences are better serving audiences, especially those in rural areas and parts of the world without reliable access to data services.

Audio Search Engines. Podcasts have emerged as a major vehicle for news content in the years since “Serial” and others brought them into the mainstream. The problem? Audio historically hasn’t been searchable. A handful of organizations are working to solve that.

Video. FTI speculates about three video trends: connected TVs, decentralizing the web and streaming social video. Smart TVs with built-in streaming services will disrupt local broadcast stations and long-form cable news. A decentralized web, where computers can more easily talk to each other, may render tools like Skype irrelevant. And now that just about every major social network offers a streaming video tool, the broadcasting industry is no longer limited by special licenses and is technically leveled.

Media Consolidation. Organizations like Sinclair, AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Charter and Amazon have made big splashes in media at the same time traditional organizations shrank. Loosened FCC restrictions and growing stress on media organizations will likely only serve to hasten this trend.

The report notes that a handful of other trends, those with a high degree of certainty but with longer-term impact, should “inform strategy.” They include:

  1. Natural Language Generation for Reading Levels. Computers will automatically write stories and generate disparate versions for different audiences.

  2. Computational Photography. Tools like the new iPhone camera, which blends optical and digital image processing techniques, will become more ubiquitous.

  3. Journalism as a Service (JaaS). Rather than reporting solely for our own publications, journalists deliver content that can be used by third parties.

  4. Real-Time Fact Checking. Speech recognition and finely tuned algorithms are helping fact-checkers correct falsehoods almost as soon as they’re uttered.

  5. Synthetic Datasets. Think lorem ipsum but for datasets. These fill in for real information, allowing researchers to hone algorithms and computer models while protecting privacy.

  6. New Video and Audio Story Formats. Mixed reality, voice interfaces and other technologies are providing new experiences and changing how audiences interact with information.

  7. Tweaks To Social Network Algorithms. Social networks are taking big steps to correct issues with misinformation and solve their misuse across the globe.

  8. The First Amendment in a Digital Age. How do we deal with hate speech and threats online? The issue is only going to get more complicated. Some countries are also having complicated conversations about misinformation and free speech laws.

A full version of the report contains 235 trends among 20 industries and is available here.

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