There are species doomed to extinction. And then, there are species which adapt to external changes and evolve. It’s called the law of natural selection. That of journalists, of all the endangered species, belongs to the latter. And, believe it or not, the natural evolution of reporters will be aided by a Monkey.
This is neither a scientific paradox nor a phenomenon of regression: the Monkey is a software. In less than a second and in impeccable English (sometimes even better than that of a professional journalist), it’s capable of producing a news story complete with a title, summary, and image. Monkey-reporters and other creatures in the process of evolution are the protagonists of The Monkey that won a Pulitzer, the book released in Italy on March 22 (La Scimmia che vinse il Pulitzer. Storie, avventure e (buone) notizie dal futuro dell’informazione, Bruno Mondadori) by Italian journalists Nicola Bruno and Raffaele Mastrolonardo. The book is an interesting investigation into the changing information ecosystem and a shrewd reflection on some of the major trends in the future of media.
What will journalism look like in the digital era? The question has circulated for over a decade. The answers are varied and almost always not very optimistic. Two Italian journalists explore the future of journalism, and their journey takes them to Chicago, New York, Washington, Warsaw, Amsterdam, Brussels and other European capitals. In each of these cities they meet several pioneers of journalism in the eleventh century. They are all very different characters, but they have the same goal of reinventing the news in the digital millennium:
There are the ‘Speedy Gonzales’ kids of BNO News, young teenagers who tweet faster than the speed of light and exceed past the biggest news agencies.
There is Bill Adair, a veteran of traditional journalism who reinvented investigative journalism with PolitiFact: a website that makes use of fact-checking to expose the lies of politics through a kind of “digital lie detector.”
There is the Kenyan activist and lawyer Ory Okolloh, who founded the platform Ushahidi which was born to restore justice to forgotten victims.
There is the Parliament Representative in Iceland Birgitta Jónsdóttir, who managed to push through a forefront law that has transformed Iceland into a paradise for journalists and free speech.
There is the Polish architect Jacek Utko that found a way to give new life to newspapers by revolutionizing the graphics.
There are Kristian Hammond and Larry Birnbaum, the Directors of the Intelligent Information Lab in Chicago who invented Stats Monkey (the software that generates 150 thousands news items a week in a perfect English).
There is Julian Assange, one of most feared men by the Pentagon.
There are the “rebels of the New York Times” who invented new forms of storytelling and the journo-hackers from Chicago. They are hybrid creatures – half hackers, half journalists.
All these successful forerunners and innovative experiments are paradigms of a structural revolution within the media system. Yet they will not threaten the values and original mission of journalism: striving to be a guardian of power and disseminating the truth.
Despite the general optimism of the authors, a mood of uncertainty about the future of journalists remains in the background. The question that naturally arises is: how will a reporter survive in the face of increasingly sophisticated software such as the monkey-robot, which processes data at a dizzying pace, and translates them into a natural language? Co-author Nicola Bruno explains:
“There are two main trends that are looming on the horizon. On the one hand, knowledge acquisition will be increasingly data-mediated, we will be submerged by accumulation of data and information. In order to process data and statistics, we will need software such as monkey-robots that are more efficient and faster than any human journalist. This does not mean that reporters will succumb to robots. Indeed, in an information landscape where data will take over, we need someone who is able to interpret and analyze the data that is bombarding us. This is why the role of journalists is not at risk. Not surprisingly, the second trend that is occurring is a revival of investigative journalism, which, as the model of Politifact, uses new technology to dig deeper and shed light on the truth.”
The cornerstones of the profession such as precision, transparency, speed, freedom of expression will not only be safe, but are likely to be refreshed by these innovative tools. In order for journalists to survive they have no choice except adapting to changes occurring in their ecosystem, and be prepared to evolve into journo-hackers: a hybrid species midway between the journalists and hackers. It’s mutation which is only a first step towards human evolution into cyborgs: half man and half machine.
After all, the evolutionary process has already started for some time and the authors themselves are not immune. Nicola Bruno and Raffaele Mastrolonardo are co-founders of Effecinque, an Italian-based “refreshing journalism” agency founded in 2010, which experiments with new formats and innovative language by exploiting the potential of technology. Among their initiatives is Beautiful LAB, an experiment in “news in motion”: digital versions of infographics used to explain particularly complex news.
The Monkey that won a Pulitzer will be presented next April 16 as part of the Festival of Journalism in Perugia in 2011. Authors will discuss it with two protagonists of the book: Bill Adair, founder of Politifact and Jacek Utko, a brilliant designer of newspapers.