Monday, June 22, 2009...1:27 pm

Why journalism may become software development

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There’s an interesting comment from Soilman on my post on whether a donation model can fund web content. It’s worth a closer look.
He argues that the three things users may pay for are:

  1. Data
  2. Services
  3. Software/apps 

If you’re a business mag/website, you create a software programme that helps professionals in your industry do their job. Most of it is bespoke (ie it’s genuinely focused on solving a business problem, not on providing media services), but it happens to include some of the material you already produce. You do this with more and more little apps, aiming to create a global suite of specific industry software solutions that all have your existing content and brand publishing in common.

Yes – this is a radically different way of approaching “journalism”. In fact, I suspect many – if not most – people in the trade would say it wasn’t journalism at all. 
But I think that attitude is wrong. The changing face of technology makes this inevitable. Digital content is being presented and used in radically new ways. Users are no longer simply consumers of content, but producers and collaborators as well. 
It’s one reason why I am trying to start paying attention to relevant blogs by software developers and techies
Matt Bowen’s blog has a post on The Next Web that looks at the way new technologies will converge to help us communicate
His bullet-point list includes:

  • universal, persistent identification
  • fragmented and then reunified social networks
  • reputation management
  • real, easy metadata
  • location aware content
  • significantly increased usability
  • increasingly, more AI involvement in searching, navigating, and selecting

It’s not journalism as we know it – in the sense of worthy (and wordy) comment and investigation. But he is looking at the very heart of information – what it does, how to structure it, and why people will need it.
In fact, some forward-thinking media observers agree.
Paul Bradshaw’s Online Journalism Blog has already applauded The Guardian’s crowdsourcing MPs’ expenses tool for allowing readers to act as their own investigative journalists.
And there are commercial benefits. He notes:

When you treat news as a platform rather than a destination, then people tend to spend more time on your site, so there’s an advertising win there. 

So the idea that software development and journalism could be part of the same discipline is not crazy. 
From the same blog comes news of a service by online document annotation service A.nnotate that allows users to annotate PDFs of MPs’ expenses forms
Again, this is a software app that works to let people analyse and comment on things in the news. So we’re still in journalism territory. 
And while annotations on MPs’ expense forms were offered free as a promotion, A.nnotate usually charges for its service. Which is monetisation of web content, for anyone who wonders. The Holy Grail of media today.
And if you think about it, the whole point of web content is to do a different job from old-style, static media.
Maps and charts can be interactive. Surveys can be real-time. Databases can be interrogated. 
Figure out what readers value for their own business and you have a shot at levering some money from them to supply it. 
Is this journalism?
Certainly not as the old guard of printies and their noble-but-elitist goal of public betterment would have it.
But as an example of how we can work with information and think of ways to deliver it and make it useful, it is nothing but journalism.


  • A few months ago I would have laughed at the idea (although that would be strange given my work history*). But I’ve spent a lot of time over the last six months learning about css, php and mysql. I’ve designed a couple of websites.
    * My first journalism job in 1980 was on a computer magazine and each month I had to sit with the sub-editor reading through printed program listings which – in those days – still had to be typeset. Proof-reading was a nightmare, but after a few months we could recognise certain machine code sub-routines.

  • I suppose these are the questions I’m trying to answer with Help Me Investigate – a platform which produces journalism as a by-product of general investigative activity. The business model is not around selling content, but as you say: services, data, etc. (are apps just more services?). It may well not work, but we’ll learn more about what might by trying.

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