The future of news: automated, crowdsourced, and better than ever


ABC journalist Mark Colvin last week delivered the Andrew Olle Media Lecture, a prestigious annual lecture on journalism. Mark is a Twitter afficionado as well as journalist with over three decades of experience, making him a great choice for the lecture this year.

The full transcript of the lecture provides rich stories from the history of journalism in Australia, and an incisive view of the present.

On the topic of crowdsourcing, Mark says:

These are some lessons I’ve learned, in nearly four years on Twitter.

Crowd-source. That can mean anything from checking a date to asking people, as the Guardian regularly does now, to help scour through big government document dumps and Commission reports.

It’s amazing how much more information you can find with thousands of willing helpers. I spoke to an archaeologist just a couple of days ago who’s crowd-sourcing the attempted translation of five and a half thousand year old cuneiform texts.

Ask your readers, listeners and viewers to contribute.

That Cobar bushfire I covered in 1974? Now we’d have mobile phone photos and videos, eyewitness accounts, Skype interviews with people who’d posted on social media, and all probably hours before the first reporter even got her boots on the ground.

Be a presence on social media, giving as much as you. Don’t just plug your own stuff: encourage conversation and join in others’ discussions.

Mark also discusses the automation of news content, a topic I’ve written about several times on this blog.

In the US, a company called Narrative Science is already selling thousands of stories about Little League Baseball games and stock market movements to local papers and outlets like

This is really happening, and fast.

Computer algorithms doing our jobs.

Narrative Science’s cofounder, Kristian Hammond, believes that in 15 years “more than 90 percent” of news stories will be computer-generated.

Narrative Science is already working on a way to suck out the data from Twitter and produce news.

If you’ve tracked the progress of a natural disaster on Twitter, for instance, you’ll know this can be done.

At that moment I will start demanding royalties by the way.
Local newspaper chains in the US have also started outsourcing news stories to the Philippines, because it’s really really cheap.

What all that means is that rolling and local news will be worth almost nothing.

Computerised stories will be so cheap that Microsoft or Telstra or the AFL, which already have their toes in the water, will be able to do a huge amount of the job now done by newspapers.

Once again it’s simple economics.

News itself is going from a scarce product to a superabundant one.

The overall tone of Mark’s comments is pessimistic, pointing in detail to the financial travails of all but a handful of news outlets in the world today. He rightly concludes:

All I can give you is my profound conviction that good journalism – journalism of integrity – is a social good and an essential part of democracy, and we have to do everything we can to try to preserve it.

Certainly the story that Mark tells – one well familiar to those in the frontline of the news industry today – is on the face of it not a happy one. Yet we need to look at the possibilities of the landscape today.

Just over a week ago I ran a workshop in New York on Crowdsourcing for Media, which included an overview of 12 elements of news that can be crowdsourced in different ways. I’ll expand on that analysis soon.

Mark takes a positive view of crowdsourcing in his comments. Indeed, in almost all cases the crowdsourcing of news combines amateur contribution with professional insight and experience, creating better combined capabilities.

We could look at the automation of news content as a negative. Yet if some kinds of news can be reported adequately by machines, why have skilled humans do that? There are ample domains in journalism where we can be confident that machines will not be rivalling human capabilities for probably decades, which is considerably longer than it will be for many other professions.

Automation and crowdsourcing of news, combined with professional journalistic skills, undoubtedly provide a richer landscape of news reporting than we have had before.

As I write in the Second Edition of Getting Results From Crowds:

As different elements of the media process are broken out for crowd participation, there will be many highly valued roles for journalists and other media professionals to complement broader amateur participation. The rise of crowds in media has the potential to create a richer media landscape for all.

Of course the piece of the puzzle that is far from resolved is the financial models that will pay for the professional journalists in this picture. I do believe that those news organizations that truly explore the emerging sources of value in news will find those models, possibly including crowdfunding of some initiatives.

Let’s do what we can to create that richer world of news, enabled by automation, crowdsourcing, and the blossoming of social media.