Developers, Meet Your Hungry New Market: The News

You think security is a challenge where you work? Try being a journalist. When your product is information, it’s a daily experience to see your own work stolen right under your nose and sold across the street.

Web gurus from Google and eBay are hard at work brewing up remedies for this thorn in the side of the already wounded news industry. Naturally, a lot of them are attacking the problem with the view that data is the industry’s product, rather than “stories” (which is only partly true). Some — like hyperlocal news site EveryBlock — have focused on creating web applications and customizable mashups of relevant data like neighborhood crime or local politics. But along the way, some have found that web apps can sometimes be the best way to tell a story.

Check out this amazing interactive graphic from the New York Times in September depicting the rise and fall of major banks through the economic crisis. Roll it backward and forward through time at your whim, and try to imagine a better way to convey the trend that it illustrates. Making content more interactive and personalized protects it from the plague of copy-and-paste plagiarism that has made online journalism so difficult to monetize. And it enriches storytelling. That’s lead some to argue that what is needed is a new breed of “hybrid programmer-journalists” who code apps and write copy.

But that’s only until programmers take the next logical step: Creating products for journalists that allow them to achieve these ends without being programmers themselves.

Crowdsourcing is one way to vastly empower news publishers using NewNet technologies. Last week, a group of researchers in MIT’s Media Lab won a contest by locating, in a single day, 10 red balloons that had been scattered randomly across the country. They did it by creating a web site with the right crowdsourcing incentive structure: $2,000 to anyone who finds a balloon and $1,000 to anyone whose friend finds a balloon (which encouraged even people who are unlikely to find one — people in London, say, with friends in the U.S. — to get involved). The winning team immediately considered their technique’s applicability to finding missing children or rounding up folks with needed skills in an emergency. But its use of an audience to extract information also seems perfectly suited to journalism, which is the business of finding information, usually quickly.

Developers could help journalists make the most of crowdsourcing with web tools that make it easy to provide incentives and quickly process audience feedback — perhaps even tackling some of the challenges inherent in crowdsourcing, such as the need to verify crowdsourced information. But the benefits go beyond just broader powers of information retrieval to deeper audience engagement. Incentive schemes could even potentially be combined with monetization, as the Cincinnati Enquirer demonstrated by selling a coffee-table book comprised of the best photos submitted by local photographers.

Online collaboration tools are another opportunity for developers to support the future of online news. Last week a group of news organizations, including Mother Jones and The Nation, experimented with an ad hoc “collaborative newswire” focused on covering the Copenhagen climate summit. The idea was to use a phalanx of knowledgeable reporters and editors as a smarter filter than Google News. Using a platform created by Publish2, they combined NewNet technology with traditional journalism to create something that neither one could have done on its own.

Programmers can compete with journalists if they like, but they’d be wise to instead arm journalists with the power of their programming. Reporters and editors shouldn’t need to know how to code web apps any more than they should know how to create word processing apps or blogging platforms. Developers should create simple but flexible tools for creating the interactive and personalizable applications that will allow journalists to not only give their audiences the information they want but to also tell them stories they won’t hear anywhere else.

Question of the week

What kind of apps could best empower journalists?