The power of the smartphone and the demise of the reporter

Mobile phone penetration continues to rise in Rwanda at nearly 72 per cent as of last September. With this, it is becoming fairly common for a member of the public with a smartphone to capture the first picture of a breaking news event and post it on the Internet to a global audience.

Mobile phone penetration continues to rise in Rwanda at nearly 72 per cent as of last September. With this, it is becoming fairly common for a member of the public with a smartphone to capture the first picture of a breaking news event and post it on the Internet to a global audience.

Every time this happens, it writes the prognosis of the traditional news reporter. And the prognosis does not look good.

According to some projections, reporters – and here I am choosing my metaphors very carefully – are a dying breed and may go extinct by 2030, only a short decade-and-a-half away.

And it is not merely because of the Tweeter or Facebook and other immediate news posts in the blogosphere, but advancements in technological innovation, the prevalent business model and social utility of the media.

Let’s start with technological innovation, and sample this news item recently quoted in The Guardian:

“Apple Inc (AAPL) on Tuesday reported fiscal first-quarter net income of $18.02bn. The Cupertino, California-based company said it had profit of $3.06 per share. The results surpassed Wall Street expectations. The maker of iPhones, iPads and other products posted revenue of $74.6bn in the period, also exceeding Street forecasts. Analysts expected $67.38bn…”

The paragraph was picked from the newswire, Associated Press (AP). Newswire organisations offer a service to media organisations and newspapers, such as this one, by providing breaking news stories, stock-market results, or other up-to-the-minute information.

The news item on Apple is an example of straight forward reporting on facts as they obtain that could have been written by any reporter; only that it was purely written by computer software developed by Automated Insights, a company that “has worked out a way of teaching machines how to write journalism.”

The Guardian explains that Automated Insights is “one of a number of companies that have married huge advances in pattern recognition software with the revolution in natural language generation to create algorithms that resemble a writer.” (Google the article, “And the Pulitzer goes to… a computer”).

Such softwares are only one nail on the reporter’s coffin. There are the business and social aspects.

As a business, mainstream media organisations have been subjected to serious competition in advertising sales and in information provision on the Internet. This has had an effect on the employability of reporters as many get laid off.

Consumers would rather read free news online as advertisers look to exploit far lower rates to reach far more highly targeted audiences through online channels such as Google, Facebook and other social media.

This underscores the social aspect of media. News has distinctive, socially advantageous qualities throughout human evolution.

In fact, as media researchers point out, journalism as we know it required the growth of cities, while editorial content made news into a successful business with a generous complement of crime, sports, human interest and entertainment.

In this manner media channels can pull together large groups of people with diverse perspectives and interests into a shared public conversation.

This is how social media on the Internet has thrived, especially given that people interact in real time no matter where they are in the world sharing news and other interests.

It is because of this media organisations have had to meet a much higher standard of originality and distinctiveness in the face of Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

Factor in mobile phone penetration, as the smartphone and the Internet continues to make inroads even in rural communities. Mobile networks remain the only way that people are getting connected, with Internet playing an exceedingly important social role.

But while the social media has its merits, even as it spells doom to the reporter, it is remains a noisy marketplace offering up a cacophony of opinion and conflicting claims.

And, as The Guardian observes, the machine is not about to write nuanced profiles or wisecracking think pieces.

At least, not yet, according to the developers of the writing software.

 

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