Why the future of news is software

Newsrooms and journalists are not in the content business. Rather, they are in the information business and the sooner we embrace that fact, the better.

Last week I was having a beer in Dublin with Gerard Ryle, the head of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). Over the past two years they have broken enormous global stories: Offshore Leaks and China Leaks.

Gerard had just given a speech, talking about how journalism - and by extension investigative journalism - was in fact in its infancy. The future, he predicted, would be far better than the past. It was refreshing to hear someone from the news industry to be so positive about the future.

One thing we discussed in detail afterwards (as is often the case among hacks) was the future of the news industry, and how it might be financed. Philanthropy gets you so far we agreed, but funds and momentum can often run out. So I turned the conversation to “products”.

Information, I argued, was the raw material of journalism. All functions of journalism relate to three core principles — information gathering, information analysis, and the distribution of the results of that process.

Today, the primary focus of journalism conferences and newsrooms is often on the last bit — how do we get more people reading our fabulous and expensive content, and how do we sell more ads against that content? (Where content is defined as one result of the first two stages, distributed through any medium, such as a news story).

Paywalls, leaky paywalls, soft paywalls, registration walls and so on all make one huge product assumption — that the content being produced today is already by its nature valuable — that the human-fuelled news gathering process is already efficient at getting nuggets, getting scoops, breaking stories, gaining insight and providing analysis; that the skills and tools of journalists are already sufficient at producing compelling content; that there is nothing that can be improved in the actual human labour of journalism.

This is simply not the case.

Instead of focussing on how to get more content in front of more people, and selling more ads against that content, journalism should be focussing on the other two steps in the process.

Many of you might be thinking — oh here comes another “data journalism and visualisation will save us” post. No. I started on data journalism in 2009. That’s five years ago. It’s been around as a skill in one form or another for decades.

But here is the next step, and one that I believe is coming whether you like it or not: data journalism and the skills associated with it lead naturally to an evolution: to software products. After all software in some ways is just more sophisticated and systemised data gathering (scraping etc), and analysis (Excel etc). We need to build software that does as many of the mundane tasks in gathering and parsing information as possible, and let the humans focus on the things humans are good at. And we need to sell those tools.

How many journalists do you know interested in building software products? Not many. How many journalists do you know are interested in selling software products to a market niche (no longer byline obsessed page one stories with millions of readers)? Not many at all. How many journalists do you know who think every day about how to build software businesses that sell products to market niches (but perhaps on a global scale)? Not many.

Yet so often I see startups, and I wonder to myself — why didn’t a journalist start that? What’s wrong with us? It seems an obvious fit for our industry.

Sceptical?

Why didn’t journalists on a business/finance beat build Open Corporates, RankandFiled or Duedil? Business reporters have for decades used tools or time every day to gather news about company filings, but never considered building software that would help them to automate the process. They didn’t have the presence of mind to think “hang on a second; if I built that I could sell it to my business readers as a competitive analysis product AND have a scoop suggestion system to boot”.

The industry simply doesn’t think this way.

The same goes for things like Govini. Why is a product being built around government procurement data not being built by journalists and newsrooms? So much news content and stories centre around government spending waste, yet few thought building a system for mining the data would be a good idea, a revenue stream, an entire product offering — while also working as an automated story suggestion system.

At Storyful, which was bought by News Corp last year, I worked with developers to build these types of systems, though sourced from social data sources. But there’s a whole world of data sources out there, and a whole world of possible customers.

The challenge is this: build news gathering and information analytics systems that blow your mind. Build it to get nuggets that fuel scoops — but also slice and dice the data to sell it to entire industries — which includes your existing readers. Sell products to your business readers who want tools to help them do business. Sell to your real estate readers who want tools to help them find and buy property or analyse shifts in planning applications (and so much more).

You could find yourself no longer thinking along the eyeballs/advertising paradigm, but instead thinking about software products worth potentially billions of dollars.

What have you got to lose by trying?

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