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News Code Factory

Algorithms and SEO make ­journalism a pure commodity in the digital market at the cost of traditional ethics

News Code Factory
Photograph by Alamy
News Code Factory

There was a time when a cup of chai, the odd cigarette and the morning newspaper was how middle-class India began its day. The reader and the ­editor had healthy exchanges in the form of ‘letters to the editor’. Now however, the newspaper has given way to a smartphone and insightful correspondence happens through emojis. The editor is now jostling with the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter to be heard, in a landscape where fake news travels faster than most good stories. In fairness though, social media is perhaps the most democratic information has ever been, it’s a behemoth when it comes to choices. But, do these choices enable a thinking, concerned citizen who wishes to be on top of news?

The Reuters Digital News Report for 2017 makes a startling claim. It says that over half of the people surveyed were routed to a story by an algorithm rather than an editor. The number spikes to 58 per cent for younger users and 64 per cent for those who use smartphones. What does being routed to a story by an algorithm mean? It means that the audience is letting the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google decide what is best for them.

“Journalists bemoan the fact that in trying to serve up what users want, original reportage from the field is getting lost.”

News organisations across the world have followed suit, as advertising models are based on the number of people you can entice to your website. “I can empathise with the damage impression-based advertising has done to journalism. It is a mad rush for numbers. Most publishers sell on a cost-per-impression basis, a tacit agreement globally,” says Sebabrata Banerjee, a blogger who champions ethical editorial analytics and works with a leading newspaper. Banerjee adds that an organisation gets paid every time an advertisement is displayed, and the need to keep up the numbers is a ‘vicious cycle’ most organisations have fallen into.

The algorithms are fed by SEO (Search Engine Optimisation), now a common term in the digital newsroom. The SEO is supposed to groom the news-copy to make it friendly-enough for a search engine like Google to ‘pick it up’. Google, like Facebook, has its own news page, or as in the latter’s case, a trending page. It’s where the clicks and with them, the moolah, comes from. The ‘top stories’ as rated by their algorithms also appear there. Some organisations even have dedicated journalists to make sure the copy is ‘SEO-friendly’. “We find out all the angles (to the trending story) which can be pushed. The more the copy is upd­ated, the more Google values it,” says a journalist of a leading news channel.

“Earlier, publications used to have a balance. Now there is more generalisation. Publishing for a niche audience has become difficult with organisations catering to Facebook and Google. But we depend so much on them that we have surrendered to their demands,” says ­Banerjee. He explains that algorithms rely on ‘collaborative filtering’, a process which entails scanning the user’s preferences, and serving ‘content’ accordingly. In this constant tug-of-war, journalists bemoan the fact that in trying to serve up what users want, original reportage and long-form stories get lost in the noise. “SEO is to ­media what distribution is to television,” says Sumon K. Chakrabarti, a former journalist and founder of foottheball.com, one of the top-15 startups at UberPitch ­India last year. Chakrabarti ­believes SEO has become “basic bread and butter” and that “legacy media, which came to the party early, failed to latch on to the pockets of untapped ­acceptance which new media did, especially with social media, because they are not  bound by the red-tape of mindset.”

“We don’t buy Google ads, for us it is all about perspectives,” says Dhanya Rajendran, co-founder and editor of The News Minute, an over three-year-old English news start-up that primarily focuses on the five south Indian states while also writing in vernacular languages. Rajendran says that the big legacy media in the region, like The Hindu and Deccan Chronicle, puts out the major stories, but it is also about nuance. “I don’t think one can function on the basis of SEO. More than half of the county doesn’t read or prefer to read news in English. Only compelling content wins,” she says. Recent sackings in the Indian media also point to a trend. Insiders say the ‘deskie’, the journalist on the desk who aggregates stories from various websites, is being preferred to field reporters as they can churn out 10-20 copies a day. Rajendran thinks the trend came from TV, which became more and more “desk and anchor-driven.”

However, in the West, as in little chambers in India, there are signs that change is afoot and the end-user is driving it. Late last month, Politico reported that Donald Trump’s rise also led to millenials, a generation considered averse to paying for news, subscribing in hordes to New York Times, The Atlantic and The Washington Post. According to the The Washington Post, Buzzfeed and Vice are going to miss their revenue projections for this year while Mashable is now valued at $50 million, which was five times more in 2016. Subscription and pay-wall based services are now making steady progress as ad revenue falls across the world. In India, The Ken, a news start-up which focuses on business and technology, is totally behind the paywall and puts out a single well-researched story a day. The Business Standard is only for subscribers while Newslaundry also has certain ‘content’ which the reader has to pay for.

So, where does this leave the algorithm? In 2014, Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet put an algorithm in-charge of the news and registered a remarkable turnaround in profits. The Washington Post has used the ‘Heliograf’, a ‘robot reporter’, to churn out over 800 stories this year already. Experts believe that the algorithm has intertwined itself with the news cycle and they will co-exist. Banerjee alludes to algorithms as ­‘babies’ that newsrooms have created. “But they don’t know how to groom them,” he adds. “A good editor’s brain is better than algorithms. An algorithm may know that I read an Ebert review. But it still doesn’t know why I read it, and will recommend it to me bluntly.”

With technology rapidly scaling up, Chakrabarti is of the opinion that journalists constantly need to raise their game, the way Washington Post thrived by making changes while magazines like Time and Newsweek stuttered as they refused to evolve. Most experts have one advice: if you resist evolution, being journalists or software engineers, you will be flushed out.

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