I read a lot of news media prognostication. So I'm well versed in the doomsday scenarios that imagine print's imminent death; that predict an ever-escalating contraction of whatever you call newspapers once print is dead; that tell me, in so many words, that I've made a bad career choice. Nonetheless, I'm hopeful.
Why? Because this is an old story with new details. The industry has faced existential crises every decade or so since the emergence of the radio. Technology, culture and business are always changing. Those who've survived such changes abide by a maxim that's arguably never had more relevance: innovate or die.
Lucky for people like me, it's never been easier to report in new ways. The video camera in my phone shoots in full HD. A $50 microphone and the recording software that comes for free on my Mac are enough to record and edit audio. Free to inexpensive tools now allow me to host, mine and visualize massive troves of data in ways that would have been cost and time prohibitive just a few years ago. And all those are relatively old tools.
To get a sense of the future, I love trolling through projects funded by or affiliated with the Knight Foundation, the most prominent source of funding for journalism innovation.
One of my favorite recent projects comes from Dan Schultz, a Knight-Mozilla New Technology Fellow and graduate student at the MIT Media Lab. It's automatic fact-checking software he calls "truth goggles." Say you're reading a political blog and come across Newt Gingrich's recent assertion that even millionaires can qualify for food stamps. Schultz's truth goggles would highlight that claim, point out that it's false and perhaps offer users an opportunity to learn about some of Gingrich's other false statements. It works by using natural language processing (the method by which computing tools like Siri on the new iPhone interact with humans) in conjunction with the St. Petersburg Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checker PolitiFact. As Nieman Journalism Labs suggested, the tool could also end up serving as a sort of spellcheck for facts for journalists.
Most of the recent winners of the annual Knight News Challenge, which provides start-up funding to technology-related media ideas, share the same motivation behind Schultz's software — they aim to make newsgathering easier and the reader experience fuller. For instance, one of the 2011 Knight winners collects user-generated content from social media during significant news events and shares it in what it calls an "easy-to-browse" interface. One provides a platform for journalists to reach rural communities without broadband through text messages. Another offers a platform for easily searching state code, court decisions and legislation.
Every couple of weeks, I hear senior editor Max Brantley, who's worked at the Times for 20 years and in journalism for nearly 40, cursing with amazement at the speed and ease with which he's able to, say, augment multimedia to a story and send it out on our website and through all our social network channels. Max has been around long enough to remember hot type. He's seen an evolution in the industry that must feel like going from the Model A to the Prius (I kid, sort of). He's managed to develop a following because he's a dogged reporter who's been willing to embrace new tools. That's a good prescription for journalistic success in the future, I think, with maybe one addendum for young, enterprising would-be journalists — learn to code.