Business Technology

Sunday 4 December 2016

Separating the signal from the noise

Media & Marketing

Published 27/09/2015 | 02:30

‘To date, Twitter has been the go-to app for journalists on the hunt for breaking news’
‘To date, Twitter has been the go-to app for journalists on the hunt for breaking news’

Facebook likes connecting people. And there's one group of people it's trying to connect with like never before: journalists. The social network has just launched a tool called Signal, which is designed to help news outlets and their staff discover stories on Facebook and Instagram.

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Signal comes hot on the heels of another tool that may be of interest to some journalists. Facebook's Mentions app for verified profiles will help celebrities, musicians, and yes, journalists - interact with their audience. Mentions promises to make self-promotion less awkward by allowing users post to followers, not friends. It also includes Periscope-esque Live streaming, and Reddit-style Ask Me Anything Q&A features.

But back to Signal. It promises to allow journalists to monitor whatever is trending on the social network, and to sift through related content that has been shared by people and pages. Journalists will be able to get at a top-of-the-pops style, real-time ranking for most mentioned public figures like authors, actors, politicians, sports stars and more. Instagram is set to become a gold mine; journalists will be able to search for public posts related to hashtags, associated with specific accounts, or based on topic or location. What's more, all posts, updates, images and videos can be saved for later use.

Many publishers now rely on Facebook for online distribution of their content. Now it seems that Facebook is looking to close the loop; Signal seems designed to make publishers more reliant on Facebook for content generation and discovery.

But it'll be a big ask. Publishers are now putting more energy into how newsrooms cope with the deluge of information they receive - and the information they're not getting that they should. But journalists and publishers will be naturally sceptical about relying on one source alone.

To date, Twitter has been the go-to app for journalists on the hunt for breaking news. Its slimmed down, chronological layout makes it ideal for tracking breaking news. While its lack of an algorithmic engine for displaying content like Facebook, means you're getting an unmediated stream of content. And like Facebook, Twitter is also trying to copper-fasten its relationship with journalists.

It's working on its own news curation tool - Project Lighting - which will feature live events that people are tweeting about; everything from sporting occasions to award ceremonies and breaking news stories. A team of editors in Twitter's global media operations will package the best and most relevant tweets. Users will be able to follow each of these events to have this curated package folded into their news stream.

Aside from relying on social networks directly, many newsrooms are now working with third parties to help them with some of the more technical aspects of newsgathering.

One of these is Newswhip, an Irish company that counts the Huffington Post, the BBC and BuzzFeed amongst its clients. Newswhip tracks content consumption on social networks at scale to discover the content that people access in real time, and predict what's going to matter in the future.

"Journalists are looking for tools that can cut through the noise quickly and accurately," says Liam Corcoran, Newswhip's head of communications. "They're less interested in hearing about what every other site has already covered, and want the most granular possible insight into what their own audiences would find worthwhile."

Corcoran also feels publishers now realise the importance of interrogating data on how their audience shares and consumes news. "Publishers will face even more competition for readers and attention in the near future," he says. "The ones that will have the greatest staying power online will be the ones who use new technologies and processes to help adapt to the needs of their readers best, while not losing sight of their strongest asset - powerful storytelling and reporting. The nose for a story never went away - it's still as relevant and important a skill in journalism as ever."

But many modern journalists aren't reliant on third parties or Twitter and Facebook to sniff out a good story. They sift through less obvious sources, using advanced searches, Boolean search terms, and, on occasion, coding. This is more prevalent in countries where open data is provided by the state, allowing many journalists to come up with cunning ways of scraping data for stories. They use code to sift for gold.

A great example of this comes from the LA Times' Ben Welsh, editor of the paper's DataDesk. He gets an email at 2.30am every day from the LAPD. Attached is a spreadsheet of everyone who was arrested the previous day. Welsh wrote a script that automatically finds the mail and loads the attachment into a database. It then checks whose bail was set highest - an indication of more serious crimes.

It also checks for anyone whose occupation is listed as a minister, producer or musician. The result, a ready-made daily digest of the most serious crimes committed the previous day, with an added bonus of alerts on any celebrities who have had a brush with the law. How's that for modern newsgathering?

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