Will Data Become the New Editor-in-Chief?



This event took place at Social Media Week in New York. You can get the SMW Insider Digital Subscription to access the full video of this event and 60+ other #SMWNYC sessions.

Speakers on this session started the conversation on the ways journalism used to be before the sweeping changes that have come with the rise of the Internet.

They established that, in the past, the high cost of printing newspapers ensured that only one or two major papers would dominate different regions, allowing them to control almost all the content that large numbers of people consumed.

Since the beginning of the Internet age, though, people have had access to much more content, as they can read pieces by multiple outlets online and even consume material that has been generated not by journalists but by anyone with internet access.

Being exposed to so much information can be overwhelming, which is where another advent of the digital age comes in. Nearly every site, whether it features news or shoes, uses some form of data and algorithms to attempt to present visitors with material that has been tailored to them. In the panel’s estimation, these technologies are crucial for managing the onslaught of content that Internet users face nearly every time they go online.

They proved this point by claiming that Twitter’s refusal to use algorithms to present people with stories and posts tailored to their interests is in large part what has prevented them from growing and allowed them to be eclipsed by Facebook, which does employ algorithms.

While the panelists praised the usefulness of using data and algorithms to curate content, they acknowledged that it does come with drawbacks. They claimed that, while algorithms are good at amplifying material that is already trending or at least in the current conversation, they are not as good at unearthing unique, under-the-radar content for consumers, which allows the same short, soundbite-like pieces to circulate widely.

These concerns made it difficult for them to speculate as to how sites will incorporate algorithms into real-time content, which is quickly becoming a popular format. It was also mentioned that curated content can become so personal that it begins to unsettle people, such as when women who are pregnant but have yet to tell their family and friends begin to frequently come across maternity-related content.

A major takeaway that the panelists wanted to impart was that, while data and algorithms do benefit content, they must work just as closely with context. In other words, technological advancement is positive as long as it does not become completely detached from the roots of the industry in which it operates.

An example of this is long-form, investigative pieces, which had begun to go out of fashion as papers lost revenue and had to curtail spending on international bureaus and long, deep investigations.

However, hip, young, tech-savvy sites like BuzzFeed, which now have the money and power that papers like the New York Times once had, are beginning to bring this format back, albeit optimized for mobile and geared up to be a part of curated content feeds.

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