What Function Will News Serve In The Future?

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 14.472% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

There’s no piece of news reporting that can compete with the speed of Twitter and Facebook.  That’s because the reporters are an intermediary layer, having to push it through a level of bureaucracy, whereas all someone has to do is Tweet “There was an explosion at the Boston Marathon finish line!” and wham, 10,000 Retweets later, the news is disseminated.
So anyone sane has pretty much abandoned the idea of getting breaking news from CNN.  Anyone who’s watched a major event unfold in real time knows that the official news outlets are often fifteen minutes, a half-hour, beyond the speed of actual events.
What CNN and Fox and the NYT have become, in effect, are the reality check.  Were you to have followed the Boston Marathon tragedy yesterday, you would have seen all sorts of crazy snippets of “news,” many of which turned out to be false.  Savvy net-users knew to take everything with a grain of salt until an “official” news source covered it… which is why, when a major source like the New York Post erroneously reported that a Muslim guy had been taken into custody, people got furious.  The news outlets don’t provide the news any more, they certify it.
Which makes me wonder how long that will happen.  It seems to me that eventually, there’ll be a way of certifying individual sources – i.e., “How trustworthy is Ferrett, anyway?”  You could look over my history and have people vote on how reliable I am at providing information, and in turn have that truthiness-percentage be a way of gauging how trustworthy my ratings for my friends are, and soon enough you would have a personal rating of how reliable a particular news item is.
I can easily envision a future where Fox News does nada – but an aggregator does some mighty complex calculations to say, “The volume of Tweets/Facebook posts about this Boston Marathon event have hit a critical mass, enough to bring it to my user’s attention with an 74% reliability rating.”  Reporters Tweeting directly from the scene would probably have more reliability, natch, but that wouldn’t be related to a news organization per se – it’d be that people had tuned into them before and trusted them.  Users with little experience online probably wouldn’t get a whole lot of traction right away, so if someone’s first post was “Check this video I took of the explosion,” it wouldn’t have much of an impact – but hour by hour, as other news sources came in and confirmed their post, that video would rise to the top of the news posts.
Eventually, the idea of “news” would go away, replaced by a large-scale network of personal probability calculations.  Maybe people would subscribe to groups of especially trustworthy people, making for erzatz news sources – but you could still get really good information just by sifting through people’s sources.   In many cases, more accurate than the stories that could only bubble up through a news department’s bureaucracy.
And when we can get news quicker and validate it on our own, what function will the news serve?  Will they wither away, or will such a movement force them to actually do what they’ve failed to do for years, and weigh in-depth reporting over trivial questions?  Or is our need to see random victims interviewed so strong that news will fall to the simple function of shoving a microphone into someone’s face?
And yes.  I know this new algorithmically-based methodology of news would only serve to deepen biases, for those you mark trustworthy are often those who you agree with politically.  But hey.  You think that’s not happening already?


  1. Carmel J.
    Apr 16, 2013

    Wow, two comments from me in one day. That’s a record lately! Anyway, here’s what happened with me yesterday. I was working and had my Twitter notifier off, my phone is also on silent. After 2-3 hours I looked at my phone and had 68 new messages, about twice as many as usual for that time frame. I thought, “Something has happened and it wasn’t good. I should read these and see what’s up.” So I did, but all I got was a lot of, “BOMBING OF BOSTON MARATHON!!1!”, which, after the first couple tweets, didn’t really tell me much. I then looked at my son and said, “I think I need to turn on NPR.” Because I got the headline but no details and I wasn’t going to get details in 140 characters. Even on FB where there’s more space it was still a bunch of the same headline over and over. I wanted to know what actually happened and I knew I could find out whatever was known from NPR. I didn’t even consider whether or not to trust the information, which probably means that I trust NPR implicitly. Now, I didn’t consider the TV networks, partially because of a lack of access to cable TV. Also, I needed to make dinner and couldn’t surf the web for more information that I would have to carefully check to see how recent/accurate it was. NPR could tell me while I cooked. 🙂

    • TheFerrett
      Apr 16, 2013

      Yes, but that’s today.
      If, instead of clicking to find 68 messages, you found a couple of condensed reports, as chosen by your smart news aggregator, then that aggregator would serve the function of NPR.
      The point is not the failures of today, but what tomorrow can bring using the infrastructure of today as a backbone.

  2. Mike Allen
    Apr 16, 2013

    Though I don’t disagree with your notion of professional news organizations as the keepers of the reality check, I think this post misses the fact that a lot of what the folks on Twitter are retweeting are news stories and news blog posts. And this particular paradigm only applies to breaking news. Internet technology and accessibility can certainly play important roles in investigative journalism … but Twitter and Facebook not so much.

    • TheFerrett
      Apr 16, 2013

      And that’s why my deepest hope is that the news networks would adjust to this by providing deeper news investigation, which has been ravaged due to budget cuts in the past three decades. But so much of what passes for “news” these days is:
      a) Someone held a press conference! We tell you what he said.
      b) We interpret the press conferences for you!
      As far as what’s actually “news” as it is reported today, a frightening amount of it could be replaced by the systems I envision. I really hope they’d step up their game in response.

  3. Megan Rose
    Apr 17, 2013

    I worked in news for too long. There’s always been a push to be the first, to get the scoop, to break the story, but that push seemed to get more intense in the past few years as social media became more and more of a big deal. And they really *can’t* compete with twitter for speed but what they can do is deliver with more accuracy. I’d love to see less frequent news reporting, that takes its time to make sure all of the facts are true before being presented. Because they can’t be #1 on speed, but the traditional news media still has an “in” as far as getting certain sources to speak with them and listen to them, getting into certain places to get more pieces for a story. Heck, they’re trained to know how to ask questions and write comprehensive stories. It’s not that apparent anymore since everyone’s boss has said “Screw quality, we need this NOW and we need it LOUD and by the way you have to run your own camera and maintain a blog and a twitter and a facebook,” and that’s so unfortunate. There are a lot of excellent reporters out there who know how to deliver accurate news, they just aren’t given an opportunity to do so. The internet is good at spreading things fast and can be good, but it’s hard to know who to trust. So much misinformation.
    So I know it’s a complete dream, but I’d just love to see the traditional news grow some gonads and deliver news like a good lover, taking its time and doing it right and, um, I guess in this metaphor the orgasm is a nice article with accurate facts?

  4. Jim Ryan
    Apr 17, 2013

    I think my first experience with the news media being behind the wave was when Michael Jackson died; there were people on Facebook breaking this left and right, and I kept typing back, “No, no, the networks haven’t said anything yet,” and they ran with the tweet cloud 30 minutes after I’d been told this and confirmed off official word about 75 minutes into the event. The days of TV news going from breaker to validator may already be here.
    Which I can see a few problems with, in that this system works very well when covering a disaster or major crime scene, but would be a *horrible* idea if it were an election…


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