From the World Cup to media innovation

by Vincenzo Marino – translated by Roberta Aiello

From the World Cup to media innovation

In 1898, Guglielmo Marconi introduced his new invention, the wireless telegraph, sending updates from a regatta to the Dublin Daily Express. A year later, Marconi was paid by the New York Herald to broadcast the America’s Cup, Sara Morrison of the Columbia Journalism Review reminds us. From the technological point of view, this is the most exemplary case of journalism innovation, applied to sports events before journalism ‘in general.’ According to the analysis of CJR, sports-focused media could have – and in some way they have always had – a “flywheel” effect for editorial technology, like the avant-garde that is able to experiment before others, for a variety of technical and logical reasons, that historically facilitate these dynamics. Sports need constant updates, much multimedia material, and this is the reason for wide debates among readers. “The metabolism of sports and the metabolism of the Web always seemed like a good match,” says Jim Brady, former executive editor of the Washington Post website. “You have horrible deadlines, things that change at the last minute. Every night is an election night in sports.”

The ongoing 2014 World Cup in Brazil has been a giant showcase and a perfect laboratory, simultaneously, for its interactive narratives (here an example of the New York Times Magazine), tactical-numerical processings, GIF in real time (Fusion, for example), the explainers of and The Upshot, videos of the Guardian and the predictions of Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight. The Over by Over blog of the Guardian, for instance, has followed the World Cup via live blogging since 2002. A disruptive innovation for its time and a winning experiment, according to Emily Bell, if it is true – as explained to Morrison – that during the World Cup in Korea and Japan it seems to have created “the biggest traffic we’d ever had.” In order to understand how they play their own different “championship” compared with ‘classic’ newspapers, it is enough to look at the way in which the articles about sports in the English-speaking websites and homepages are presented. Stats Monkey, for example, is a software that can use the numbers of baseball games to write a complete article, with title, body, and data. It is robot-journalism and not a hypothetical, paranoid or overly imaginative future. It already exists.

“We are the robots”

One of the news items of the week is the announcement by the Associated Press of the agreement with Automated Insight, which will enable the production and publishing of articles written by software. The final product, algorithm-generated content, will be mostly financial reports, the preparation of figures and updates in large quantities able to let “our reporters focus on what the numbers mean,” explained AP’s managing editor Lou Ferrara. The idea is to leave the ‘dirty work’ to “robot-journalists” to allow more time to the ‘human’ writers to process and analyze the data. According to estimates by the AP, the number of articles produced should go from 300 ‘manual’ pieces up to 4,400 automatically.

The news caused a predictable debate (reported also by Andrea Iannuzzi last week). There are those who fear that a gradual replacement of humans by machines in newsrooms is just around the corner. Mathew Ingram of Gigaom, however, believes that this innovation should be welcomed. From a process of automation for events and news as municipal councils and sports updates there can be a benefit, even strengthening the role of reporters, making essential their reasoned contributions and capacity for analysis. Joe Pinsker of The Atlantic has the same opinion. He emphasizes how concerns need to be addressed not to the profession itself but to media industry in general, which he thinks is dying. On the web there are already a few examples – such as those of Narrative Science, a former partner of Forbes – that Harrison Weber on Venture Beat defines ‘boring’: “Aren’t press releases robotic enough?”

In the meantime, Gawker does not seem to address the problem of ‘dehumanization’ of journalism. Beginning this week, it will publish the internal chats of the newsroom – not related to the publishing construction of the website – on the vertical website “Disputations” based on the Kinja platform which hybrids feedback and content (which has already been discussed) to get to what Caroline O’Donovan of NiemanLab calls “the apotheosis of Nick Denton’s publishing.” According to O’Donovan, Denton, who is the founder of Gawker, wants to create a place for discussion, and give dignity to the after-hours bar-room conversations. In the wake of the exploitation of the newsroom’s internal material, it is interesting to report some ‘experiments’ by BuzzFeed, such as the one in which they asked their staff writers to define the Canadian border and publish the results of the test. The post has reached 3 million views and inspired Anthony De Rosa of to start a new career.

Brown Moses, crowdfunding and “pedal-powered” news

What is certain is that with technical possibilities, journalism seems to take (among many) two technically diverging roads. One is automation, another is production ‘from below.’ Not that long ago ago an Internet user, intrigued by a flame in the comments on the Guardian website, began to search for information about the weapons used in the Syrian conflict, rising quickly from being unemployed to become one of the most influential of citizen journalists consulted on the topic. His name is Elliot Higgins, he is British and known as Brown Moses (we talked about him here and at the latest edition of the International Journalism Festival, where he was a guest). This week Higgins has announced the upcoming opening of an investigation website with the help of a crowdfunding campaign that will start on 14 July. The website will be called Bellingcat and it will use the input of other writers and amateur content. It has two specific objectives: to bring together a group of writers and experts using open source platforms, and become a place of exchange and sources of knowledge, providing instruction on how to use tools and journalistic techniques through guides and webinars. A few months ago, Higgins had already launched a fundraising campaign, raising more than $10,000 in less than thirty days.

In this video Higgins tell his story at #ijf14

The road of crowdfunding continues to be taken more frequently (in the last edition, the Festival hosted the striking example of De Correspondent). This week the website Contributoria, which bases its model on crowdfunding, has launched a new paid membership model, divided between Free, Supporter (up to £1,99 per month) and Patron (up to £5,99) – so far the community has come to rely on 2,000 members, according to the founders. A group of journalists in San Francisco founded a nonprofit newspaper (about nonprofit journalism there is also the in-depth analysis of Joe Pompeo of Capital New York). Its name is the San Francisco Public Press, it is printed on paper and delivered by bicycle (for this reason it is called pedal-powered news) and wants to give a public service to the local community. The fundraiser launched on Kickstarter has arrived at around 22,000 dollars – they had asked for 10,000 dollars – and it is possible to find a copy in 50 different places in the Bay Area.