A new world of adaptive journalism

“Adaptive journalism is what I would call the ultimate in delivering – to the greatest of our technical and journalistic abilities – the best storytelling for the user at that moment.” -Cory Haik, executive producer and senior editor of digital news at The Washington Post*

Social silos – The most and least connected each of us can be in each second of our online existences. First there was the filter bubble. Put into use by Google to ensure that my search of “activities in Columbia, Mo.” is different than yours. I started to think that only art galleries and organic food markets were open on a Saturday, while you could name every Go-Kart place in town. I know plenty of artists and vegans now, but our paths never crossed. You never showed up on my Facebook timeline because our interests don’t overlap – according to the algorithms. 

I exist. For this I can be certain. I am the search results that confirm my interests, the calendars reminders that remind me to be present. And my world is reality. For this I can be certain. Truth is the news alerts I signed up for; fiction the alerts I never see. The world is sense, empiricism, instant gratification. A silo. A social silo…

Sites including Google and Facebook have been utilizing filter bubbles for several years now. Algorithms examine an online user’s past search and social behavior and then present calculated content to that user. The idea is especially promising for ad sales. If a website can determine what a user’s interests are, it can show unique ads to viewers. Many users are wary of the amount of online data that is being stored about them. If a user’s search habits are stored, they can, theoretically, be shared for purposes other than a targeted ad experience. This fear was especially heightened this year, after Edward Snowden leaked information about the NSA surveillance program.

This year, many experts began to predict that the world of journalism would start to utilize user data to provide more targeted news experiences. The Washington Post focused its efforts on implementing adaptive journalism techniques, in which content is adapted according to the device and location of the user. For instance, during a baseball game earlier this year, the Post provided live baseball score updates only to viewers who were browsing the sports section on a mobile device while in the baseball park. The site also unveiled an application called Topicly which visually groups together breaking news topics and refreshes topics every 15 minutes. These efforts show how the Post seeks to personalize the way readers view news. Other apps, such as Breaking News,  take these individualized options further. The app allows users to turn on and off “breaking news” push notifications for select keywords, topics, names, etc. of their choosing. 

This exploration of adaptive journalism has great potential to revolutionize the way websites provide news. If a news site prioritizes user interest and experience, readers will likely flock to the site knowing they can easily find pertinent information. Since the beginning of journalism, there has always been a clear distinction between who knows best about the news. Before the information age, the reporter was considered the expert about breaking stories and given full power to determine what information readers would see. Now in 2014 and beyond, trends such as adaptive journalism have the potential to give a lot of power back to readers. Engagement and increased readership are likely results of this trend.

On the flip side, however, is the possibility of the social silos I referred to in the dramatized imagination of a future world in the beginning of this post. As content in search engines, social media sites and now news sites becomes more and more specific to each user, it is entirely possible that members of society will actually understand a more limited scope of the world that only confirms perceptions they already have. If adaptive journalism is implemented in extremes, I imagine that pieces of news would become known to only certain communities. The Internet is already good at grouping searches and people based around interests. While journalism niche sites can help readers find information that is relevant to them, this news segmentation has the potential to limit exposure to important news stories. In this way, adaptive journalism has great promise, but also has many undetermined effects which may drive our world further apart rather than closer together.

*This post was written as a response to the following prompt for my Emerging Media class: “Imagine a journalistic world in which your trend has caught on and is widely used at a fictional media company of your choosing/creation. Explain the impact of its use and why it is either wildly successful or the end of the world as we know it.”

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