Making journalism a numbers game

The formula shows that the lines are the same colour as the car.

I don’t watch a lot of TV when it broadcasts, I tend to catch it online, on digital replay or on repeat on one of the many digital TV channels. I’m in to timeshift rather than tivo. But I happened to be channel surfing the other day and came across a series called Numb3rs. It’s the highest of high concept – you can tell by the way they spell numbers.

It’s about the ongoing adventures of an FBI special agent and his math genius brother. Yes, they use maths to solve problems. I told you it was high concept.

But I was reminded on it when I read a post by Dan Shultz over at the Media Shift Idea lab.

In his article World of digital mediacraft, Dan suggests that the mechanics of World of Warcraft could easily be applied to collaborative journalism. It isn’t a new idea and anyone with even a passing interest in this stuff knows that ‘risk and reward’ is where it’s at.

But two things struck me about Dan’s take on things.

He outlines some community ‘traits’ that could fit within a risk and reward model

  1. Recognize quantity – The more a user ranks and judges new content, the more potent that user’s vote could be. For instance, after voting on 100 articles that person’s vote could count as 1.01 votes in future. As always, Newgrounds.com uses a system like this.
  2. Recognize accuracy – The more accurate a user’s judgment is when categorizing new content the more sway they could have over the categorization process in future.
  3. Recognize quality – If a user has a track record of submitting valid journalism articles, maybe it could be slightly easier for them to submit future journalistic articles.
  4. Recognize wisdom – If a user’s contributions are regularly judged to particularly insightful or even just accurately reflect the attitude of a community then their future observations could have slightly more prominence.
  5. Recognize roles- As a user performs acts that fit the role of a good journalist or good citizen the system will slowly start to associate their digital identity with these social roles.

A nice range there – could it work? I’m not sure. But it struck me that you have a pretty workable equation for defining a journalist in your communities. There has to be a pretty nifty mathematical equation in there somewhere. Perhaps an applied maths journo wants to take that on and solve the case.

That’s tongue in cheek I know and I don’t hold out too much hope. Because the second thing that struck me was a point Dan made about roles.

Api journalists

In an earlier post Dan made a plea for journalism and content organisations to look at developing a ‘api’ that would allow people to identify the ‘journalistic’ role. Having read through the post a few times I’m convinced it’s a bad idea. Why? Because it’s a journalism licensing system. An open source one, but a licensing system none the less.

What both of Dans ideas have in common is a programatic approach. The idea that a genius brother can come along and find the formula that solves the case.

By the numbers

Over recent months I have seen a steady shift of perspective in the world of digital content.   The extremes of the division seems to be on where the value of the content we create really lies and how we profit (not just in terms of money ) from that.  And the responses to the problem seem as high-concept as numb3rs.

On the one side is the view that the value is in those who create it. The trust we can place in the individual or organisation. Build the brand and people will ignore the rest.

Imagine the pitch for that. A hard bitten editor uses his MBA genius brother to solve the journalism crisis by applying cardboard box production techniques to journalism.

But the journalist first model relies on roles, responsibilities and an implicit structure  – never articulated but policed ruthlessly. The programatic response demands that this can be quantified. But this is an exercise that is framed at the point where the internal and external market touch. It doesn’t engage with the internal roles other than through, apparently arbitrary measures only fixes half the problem.

The other side sees more value in the way we move the content around. Tag it, geotag it and make sure its semantic and the digital economy will decide. Cream will rise and the people will lap it up.

if we tag it and postcode it we achieve perpetual content motion – trust me I’m a genius.

That’s right. A hard bitten newspaper editor uses his SEO genius brother to solve the crisis  in journalism by finding the right tag that gets everyone reading a story.

This relies on the numbers to do the editorial work. But this falls in to the centralised distribution model.  Print, and the clicks and mortar fiascos of the nineties show that a centralising model inevitably means that the means of production will also be centralised and moved away from the communities they serve.  Relevance to an audience,  niche, geographical or other wise, suffers and no amount of tagging solves that.

Across the great divide

Last year the divide’d’jour was the Quality Vs Quantity video debate. But, appearing now on your screens is the new divide. It’s a numbers game.  It’s high concept. But it glossily produced and just about lacking in enough substance that you can’t help but take it seriously.

But both these positions are problematic as they both rely on an programmatic response to the problem.

Neither view engages properly with the value of risk and reward or the value of clear roles.

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