Image: Teemu Kiviniemi
Jarno Koponen
Who decides what journalism is and what makes the news headlines in the digital era?
What is the point in media houses’ journalistic aspirations in a world in which technology giants are the gatekeepers of knowledge, and memes spread faster than any other content on social media platforms?

What should be done in order to make journalism help people understand the surrounding world a bit better: the world in which ground-breaking societal events and our everyday behaviour turn into data on digital giants’ servers?

The internet’s “journalistic direction”

The world order of journalism has changed: technology giants such as Google, Facebook and Baidu are in charge of the internet’s “journalistic direction”. Technology companies have turned into curators whose values, business principles and systems have a direct impact on what kind of (news) content billions of people see and experience.

News media are unable to understand how different factors, ranging from recommendation algorithms to meta data invisible for users, affect the presentation and spread of journalistic content. To give a concrete example, when journalists publish content in the news flow of social media or on Youtube, they can no longer define how, or on what grounds, the content will be shown to people.

Memes are shared on Instagram seven times more than other type of content. The character of this social media platform gears people into creating emotive memes instead of profound analyses.

What is more significant to journalism, though, is the fact that unique information on the actions of individuals, communities, companies, society and the environment is hiding in the data chambers of big digital giants. This leads into a big question: how can we deal with the phenomena and events of the contemporary world in a profound manner if we cannot have access to information crucial for understanding them?

The future of journalism will not lie in technology

Right now, big technology companies affect the daily work of news media, and reform journalistic activities, but Yle, BBC, The New York Times or any other journalistic operator cannot directly challenge the internet giants in a technology contest. Yle is not, and cannot be, an AI company. Our strength lies in content. We can be the winners in that game.

Do the current journalistic methods, forms and publishing channels suffice, if we want to create a really eloquent and personal content experience on a complex topic? How will we present and analyse, for instance, future elections, if the results are influenced more strongly by skilfully targeted social media memes and discussions in closed groups than by election debates and politicians’ speeches at local marketplaces?

In order to produce meaningful journalism in a world in which the digital reality and physical world are seamlessly intertwined, editorial offices have to understand the structures underpinning the digital world in a more profound and broader manner from the perspective and objectives of journalism.

We have to be able to combine journalism and different technological applications and methods of human sciences ranging from AI to qualitative user surveys, and use this information as part of journalistic work, so that we can help people and ourselves see the world more clearly than now.

Who decides what you see?

If you only search for information on Google or follow international events through established news media, their values, algorithms and business models have a direct impact on what kind of information you have access to, how you see the world, and how you talk about it.

The editorial staff’s digital knowledge and tools directly influence what kind of journalistic decisions and content are made. And so, digital knowledge and data understanding have to become a part of journalistic key competence.

We have to create new approaches, working methods and tools that will help editorial offices and journalists in their work in a concrete manner. This means three key points:

  1. We will create new methods for editorial offices and journalists that will help them understand everyday digital reality and the world of data more fluently. The fact that almost everything we do leaves a digital imprint which affects what will happen next. It is our own responsibility, and the prerequisite of journalistic work of the future, to better understand the effect of data reality on people and society.
  2. We will make sure that journalistic content and service development will be made in a more multidisciplinary manner in the future. New methods of personal storytelling and interactive experiences are not generated by technological developments: journalists, service designers, data scientists, dramatists and application developers have to work together.
  3. Furthermore, while developing new storytelling methods, we aim to understand what we can do better than anyone else. Which stories are the ones that nobody else would tell, and which topics would nobody else deal with?

The playoffs of media houses have already started in the USA, and will start in Europe, too. Totally new openings and revolutionaries are rare in the field. In the bigger picture, the news media that concentrate on optimising journalistic activities based on old world principles will no longer be part of people’s everyday life in the future. If news media cannot reform journalism, the technology giants of today and the future will define what journalism means to future generations.

The writer is Jarno M. Koponen, Head of AI and Personalisation at Yle News Lab. You can ping him on Twitter here.

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