It me, Tronc.

If You Laughed At The Tronc Job Ad, Read This

Your hot takes might put you out of a job — and not for the reason you think

When TRONC posted a job for a ‘content specialist’ last week, future-of-news-watchers and journalists at large lost their collective minds.

Here’s a few lines from the job description:

Develop, maintain and upgrade content-harvesting robots
Develop and refine news ontology
Familiarity with taxonomic classification and/or news content management systems is desirable.
Practical editorial and/or HTML/CSS experience is a plus

Cue media Twitter freakout and mass derision, most apparent from people who didn’t seem to understand the role—check out a sample of the hilarity here.

[Note to self: Collate a stream of the names, sort by derision (most-to-least), check in on employment status in five years.]

The job was not a journalism job, per se—they’re looking for someone to refine and maintain streams of content. Journalists are precious about their content—even the word ‘content’ is a veiled insult to a supposedly hallowed craft. But once we went digital, a new reality dawned in which content, ALL content, from the 5,000-word opus to the tiny, market-moving wire splash, became data for us to parse and analyze, by hand or by robot. This Tronc job lies in the realm of data management—making sure the streams of content/data work designed by the company work as they are intended to.

We are now in the realm of robots, i.e. algorithms, processing and learning from all the content/data we create, processing it as both intelligence and a commodity. To some extent, this was what we did at Storyful, identifying, organising (that’s your ontology, folks) and processing an enormous corpus of social media content/data into usable streams so that the dev team could automate (that’s your robot management) discovery processes and built alert mechanisms (those are your algorithms) for the news team and/or the company’s clients. That has continued to this day.

And you know what? It bloody well works. You can build a business on it. In my time at Storyful, it meant the team could spot breaking news before the wire services, compress the time it took journalists to discover valuable content, and spend more time on value-added tasks like verification, contextualisation and packaging.

If you understand the concepts outlined in the Tronc ad, and you’re in a media business that uses them intelligently, you probably saw the Tronc ad and went ‘huh, makes sense’. Not everyone reacted with laughter at the Tronc ad. Some people rightly read it as a sign of the future, a future you should probably prepare for, or find something new to do.

The weird truth is we’re all helping the machines take over. Is this some Blade Runner paranoia? Nope.

Think about the Facebook journalism teams. Think about the people curating Twitter Moments. These are not high-skilled media jobs that require creativity or skill in creating narratives, linking abstract concepts to bring a vivid picture of life home to the reader. These are people feeding the machine.

And in case you didn’t realise it, YOU, average journalist, may be training the machines too — with your hot takes. What is a “hot take”? It is one of myriad barely-differentiated, hastily-centrifuged, minimally creative assemblies of words all describing the same thing. Last night’s John Oliver video. Pokémon Go. A Trump tweet. Everyone feeding hungrily at the click trough.

Apply some machine learning and natural language processing to the innumerable takes on a hot-button topic, and over time why couldn’t an algorithm learn the tropes and structures, scan the YouTube transcripts, and spit out that flaming hot take on how John Oliver totally destroyed [INSERT TARGET] last night, packaged with the perfect SEO/headline/social combo, served up by data-driven distribution, allowing it to front-run all the scrambling humans to the traffic on which they rely for job security?

Des Traynor, one of the smartest product thinkers I know, told a New York audience at #InsideIntercom recently that if your product has or is data that artificial intelligence or machine learning can learn from, you should feel very, very threatened unless you’re prepared to fight that fight. It’s robots writing sports journalism. It’s Netflix reverse-engineering Hollywood. It’s artificial intelligence writing a movie. It’s Amazon copying all the best-selling products made by its sellers.

And who’s preparing for that future in media?

Jesus. It could be Tronc.