How people use the internet — particularly search — fundamentally upended the ways journalism travels to readers. New ideas, courage and patience are needed.
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

How people use the internet — particularly search — fundamentally upended the ways journalism travels to readers.

When news hits, readers flock to a browser to type in a few key words so the priority for media outlets becomes to tap into that traffic. This is immediately evident in the surge of headlines that begin with “how” and “why” a noun does a verb: the headline is crafted to be found by algorithms. Hence it needs to reflect what people search, and not necessarily impart new information, context, or be smart.

And the speed with which news breaks into the collective means it’s a hustle to get something up that addresses basic questions, or the “what we know about” pieces. Later, perhaps, the piece gets updated for those who want to dive deeper.

Jarrod Dicker, CEO of Po.et, describes it as the emphasis on “relevancy” (is it findable) and “recency” (how quickly is it findable and is it timely) rather than “reputation” (or quality).

“Because the way we as users discover information, we changed the way we work,” said Dicker at The Disruption Lab’s July 13 event. “That’s bad.”

Po.et is an initiative of BTC Media, which is a Nashville-based blockchain information start-up. It offers news services about cryptocurrency and is working to find applications for blockchain, a shared digital ledger system that underlies cryptocurrencies, in healthcare and other areas.

Journalism is one.

Po.et, which stands for “proof of existence,” wants the next generation of the web to ascribe value in new ways to journalism, content, music and art. The products, he said, don’t need to be changed, “but the way they drive value, gain exposure or make money can.”

The objective is to put precedence on reputation and fact to clean up the misinformation that proliferates on social media and in many corners of the internet. Looking ahead, Dicker and BTC Media think blockchain’s proof of verity and ownership will be integral to fighting off astoundingly realistic spoofs — or actual fake news.

Technology (called “deep fake” technology) is making it easy to create realistic audio and video of someone saying something, which brings enormous consequence to the adage “seeing is believing.” A video could be fake although the viewer might not know.

Dicker imagines a world, potentially five years off, when readers can look for a “verified” tag or the like on news sites or individual articles. Social media companies and search engines are playing with features but are uncommitted to their role in dispelling the transfer of false or fabricated information.

“There are things happening today that we need to get ahead of so we as consumers know what we are consuming, not just in media but everywhere,” said Dicker who started with Po.et earlier this year.

Not everyone wants that, or cares.

A couple of years ago a spirited reader emailed me to question the accuracy of a health insurance article with numbers that came straight from companies’ filings to the state. The long email implied without subtlety the discrepancy was intentional to prove a personal view point.

Troubled, I double checked the figures then replied to say there was no typo and offered to get on the phone to walk him step-by-step through the search process so he could find and read the documents himself. I thought it paramount he have confidence the documents were not altered by me.

Then, if he wanted to discuss interpretation (there were insurance experts quoted in the article and I’m open to other viewpoints) we’d both have the same information. 

The response struck a nicer tone but he wrote he didn’t trust me, the companies’ filings or information from the state. He had a “feeling the figures were wrong and declined the phone tutorial.

That exchange and a few other interactions are seared into memory, and the disregard for intellectual curiosity and inquiry troubles me.

The questions of how and when people find news, whether they want in-the-weeds reporting, and establishing the inherently necessary trust between the reader and the media organization are core to the BirdDog experiment.

»Haslam: finding a sustainable journalism model ‘vital to the future’

Several dozen BirdDog readers chimed in on an unscientific survey about reading habits, which is still open because I’m chasing an admittedly ambitious target number of respondents.

In the comments, people plainly state their desire for quality writing anchored with context and weighty reporting. Not one person has responded that journalism should be free although there are several preferences about payment models.

Solving the gap between supply and demand requires a commitment from journalists — and their leaders — to buck trends and be staunchly on the side of quality with the patience to try new channels of reaching their audience. In return, readers need to recognize quality (and courage) through meaningful views and engagement, sharing and financial support.

There are initiatives everywhere. Po.et and Civil are exploring blockchain-based approaches. NewsFundr is one of a few funding models. There are more non-profits; and an upswing in the number of individual journalists who are striking out solo to meet their readers’ needs through newsletters. 

Nashville’s got a new hyperlocal organization, Rover, covering Belle Meade and Green Hills. And Memphis is getting a new digital daily this fall, The Daily Memphian.

Speaking from BirdDog’s first bustling four months, I know there is surprisingly strong interest and openness to reading upstarts — perhaps because only 4.3 percent of survey respondents thus far said they are “satisfied” with journalism options in Nashville and the state.

There’s still time to help hit the ambitious survey target. Take three minutes and tell me about you — it’s mission critical.

 

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