Venturing into a New World of Journalism

We live in a world of connected devices and things. What does that mean for journalism? Jakob Vicari is on the lookout for new stories, strategies and prototypes for tomorrow’s journalism. His blog “Journalism of Things: Strategies for Journalism 4.0” documents his search and discoveries in the realms of the ‘Journalism of Things’ (JoT), serving as a glimpse into the future.

Helo Barbie loves Ada Lovelace. © Jakob Vicari

This is my testimony:
One time, two years ago, I had a four-hour conversation with a Hello Barbie doll. Until this day, I am amazed by all the things she had to tell me about American history, the protection of elephants and the consequences of globalisation. I found a sophisticated mind in the body of a plastic doll. Though that might sound insane, please believe that I am not.
The inanimate world around us is awakening. Sensors are turning the inventory of our lives into witnesses of our everyday — every shoe, every mixer, every fitness tracker. This network of things around us feeds a global network with recordings and data. Business models are founded on the analysis of these data masses. The ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) is being born in front of our eyes. Swiftly and rapidly, it is taking over our everyday lives. Journalist Alex Handy has recently predicted that not too far into the future, we will be referring to the Internet of Things simply as ‘Things’. I think he is right.

“The Internet of Things is slowly working its way into our lives, to the point where we’ll just call them Things.“
Alex Handy, Journalist

So, what about us journalists? So far, we’ve been standing on the sidelines, describing all these new developments — and that is a good thing. We could, however, do so much more. We could conquer the Internet of Things!
I call this the “Journalism of Things” (JoT) — telling stories with the help of IoT.

sMirror, a connected newshub for the bathroom. © Jakob Vicari

It is not merely yet another variation of data journalism, not merely the consumption of content on a new mobile device, not merely a new control concept using spoken language instead of pushing buttons. This is about much more. Think about how the internet has changed journalism. Think back to a time of navigating the world without a small computer in your pocket. Think back to how surreal it seemed when you first imagined that the internet could one day rule the everyday of journalism. These thoughts are probably not that different from how you think today about the Internet of Things. It is already here, it is growing and expanding and just on the verge of transforming journalism yet again.
The Internet of Things will disappear just like the internet disappeared — not at all. The number of networked things surrounding us is constantly growing. Experts predict that by 2022, the number will have grown to 25 billion. Cars are already connected in the Internet of Transport, exchanging information about traffic jams and speed cameras; room thermostats receive information about outside temperatures and weather conditions through sensors feeding into the Internet of Home; blenders and food processors order ingredients for a trending recipe via the Internet of Food.

Our ptototype Storytrolley in a supermarket. © Jakob Vicari

The world of networked things will become a new source for journalism. Never before have the stories been closer, more numerous, more comprehensive. All the things around us have become sources and transmitters of stories. Like nature, the inanimate, non-human world can talk to us: Rhinos, for example, are connected in the Internet of Rhinos to protect them from poaching. Be it the passage of birds in the skies above, or the migration of the great white sharks deep down in the Pacific Ocean, or the brutal bike traffic on the streets of Berlin, or the armies of fitness trackers in secret military bases, or the sensors in the stomach of cows — suddenly, we are able to tell stories closer to where they happen than ever before, closer than a human reporter can possibly get. Sensors do the recording for us, precisely, round the clock, every day of the year, live for us to follow. That is the journalism of a networked, non-human world — welcome to the Journalism of Things.
The new researchers come from all areas of our lives. They collect data in our rivers. Cities are equipped with gun-shot-sensors. Bikes have spacing sensors. Cats wear cameras. The multitude of perspective is truly breath-taking. The Internet of Things is an exciting territory for journalism, sometimes even a terrifying one.

Reporterbox is a connected sensor-hub for collecting data. © Jakob Vicari

Journalism of Things is complicated and demanding. It uses network areas that are not accessible via graphical user interfaces. Far beyond familiar browser windows, the things communicate via protocols such as I2C, UART and Zigbee, they meander in the midst of data flows between Youtube videos and our e-mails, or they use their own networks such as Lora. 
Some networks are limited to a factory hall, a cowshed, or a living room; others are global. What they have in common is the masses of data they digest, and the people that move within and through them, offering docking stations. 
At this point, it is important for us as journalists to be precise: Initially, the access to these networks and data sets is limited to certain people. The machine operators in the factory hall can see the status of the connected machine, the downtime of tools, problems in the delivery chain. The dairy farmer can see the performance curve of their cow, their development and health data. The inhabitant of a smart home can analyse their habits, their sleeping pattern, the frequency with which they get daily chores done, the times they are out of the house, their energy use.
All that, however, does not mean that reporters have access to this information as well. Oftentimes, they are well-kept secrets, like diaries, and that is a good thing. I will look into exceptions at some point, sharing cases of investigative journalism. For now, let us assume and remember that, as is the case with any good story, the protagonists must be ready to open up and share some of their data for the Journalism of Things to work.

Jakob Vicari as a cloud expert. © Heinrich Holtgreve, styling Ines Könitz

This blog will serve as the base camp for my expeditions into the Journalism of Things. I will accumulate and edit basic knowledge about the Journalism of Things for reporters, readers and editorial teams. I will illustrate how networked things can enrich journalism in many different ways, ranging from low-budgets projects that local news outlets can realize to large-scale projects for television. How do things shape format, dramaturgy and stories? How can we make journalism work in the world of tomorrow?
This blog will cover sound sensors that can recognize cicadas and other sensors that can detect the sound of firearms. I will write about sensors in lemonade bottles and meteorological balloons, about cutting boards with displays and talking dolls, about sound sensors on the ocean floor, fitness trackers within the secret service and spacing sensors on bikes. I will write about great success stories and hands-on innovations.
I invite you to make this blog your base camp, too, for expeditions into the Journalism of Things. I will observe and describe, supply the equipment for those who dare to venture into this new territory with me. It will be a true adventure, not very comfortable, and not at all easy. Like all explorers, we must venture out into the Internet of Things with the best tool we have: our curiosity.

Editor, Fact Checking: Bertram Weiß; Translation: Maria Xenia Hardt

German Version: A version of this article appears in print on Dec, 2018 in Medium Magazin.