EPIC and the doom of news

At the urging of Aldon Hynes, I just got around to watching EPIC 2014 — the flash-animated dystopia about the death of the news. I’m less worried about this dystopia than other scenarios of doom.
Epic tells a history of a future in which by 2014, the New York Times is displaced by GoogleZon, an algorithmically-generated stew of peer-created content, narrowly personalized to the preferences of the individual user.
But the big threat to the New York Times isn’t Google News, which links to traditional news sources. People who get their news from Google wind up reading more traditional sources than people who just read their local paper.
EPIC envisions an AI that constructs news stories themselves, not just a portal to existing stories. But the AI to write an interesting story is a lot harder than the AI to assemble a page of stories based on a popularity algorithm.
The passive faith in AI is belied by the real process of using Amazon recommendations and Technorati today. Amazon algorithmically assembes a set of recommended books, each with a set of human-written recommendations. The reader critically sifts through the recommendations, separating the cogent from the illiterate. If Amazon were building its recommendation service, the recommendations would be linked to deeper blog and profile information about the reviewer, providing further material to check trustworthiness.
Meanwhile, the formulaic crime-and-accident coverage of today’s local news might as well be written by a bot. In-depth coverage by special-interest bloggers not infrequently beats the shallow, formulaic coverage of the mainstream media.
Also, I don’t think personalization is as big a problem as EPIC makes it out to be, although folks have been worried about it since Nicholas Negroponte popularized “The Daily Me” in the mid-90s. Social networks with external links can broaden cultural reference at least as much as they shrink them, and surely more than the narrow mass media. I can get more diverse music references in a couple of hours with iTunes, LastFM, Webjay, Amazon and Google than in a lifetime with ClearChannel.
Not to mention the fact that newspaper circulation has been falling since the 60s, under competitive pressure from radio and TV. EPIC deplores and bemoans a world where the news is shallow and sensationalistic — but that world was created by TV “disaster-of-the-day” coverage.
The big threat is from Craigslist, which cannibalizes the classified ad revenue that accounts for the newspapers’ profit margin. Good investigative journalism takes money and time. Journalist need money to eat. It’s an open question whether alternate business models — different from the classified and space ads in traditional newspapers — will generate enough money to keep investigative journalism afloat.

One thought on “EPIC and the doom of news”

  1. Ethan Zuckerman’s excellent paper, “Global Attention Profiles” points out that, of all the major news media, the BBC appears to distribute coverage more equitably than organizations such as CNN, the major wire services, etc. The BBC is also known for reporting that is second to none, and is publicly funded. Perhaps we need a “global BBC” that also manages to get public funding.

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