Coding is part of the future of journalism

Crédit photo: Flickr/CC/dmitry-baranovskiy

Coding, the new spoken language flaunted nowadays in resumes, has been making an appearance in various schools’ curricula in the U.S. and France. In France algorithmic programming is now taught to 12th grade science majors—there was even a question on it in this year’s Baccalaureate. At Sciences Po School of Journalism, learning coding principles has become a pillar of the education of future journalists.

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Science Majors and Journalism Students…

Through a curriculum entitled “Language and digital development” spanning twelve weeks students are taught the structure of news sites and editorial apps from the inside. Even though they might not create interfaces, tomorrow’s journalists need to be able to grasp coding basics (HTML, PHP, CSS, Javascript, etc.). What’s the objective? To get familiar with the developer world in order to devise innovative publishing formats.

There is a pre-requisite, however: being able to interact with developers.

“Naturally journalists and developers do not speak a common language,” said Damien Van Achter, a journalist who teaches the course “Language and Digital Development” with Peter Romera. “This gap is in fact made manifest by the physical distance that separates editorial and technical teams. There’s been a long-standing disenchantment between these two professions fed by complex hierarchical relationships, diametrically-opposed short-term interests and immediate concerns. That said, it is precisely through this ability to repeatedly iterate based on the code of their respective platforms and lead with an innovative editorial policy that editors like the Guardian and the Huffington Post, for example, have made a difference in recent years.”

“If journalism students can arrive at an understanding, if not more, of the work of developers they will be even more able to turn their journalistic aims into a higher added-value for the user,” Damien Van Achter further noted. It is also not a coincidence that at The Guardian the reshuffling of divisions has been aimed at adding more developers than journalists. Where Alan Rusbridger, who runs The Guardian and was invited to give this year’s inaugural lecture at Sciences Po School of Journalism is concerned, the future of journalism necessitates that one understand coding. And he’s not alone in this thinking.

A course not so imaginary

On the other side of the pond Brian Boyer, director of NPR’s apps development, imagined a course he would teach journalism students, one that he considers essential in 2012. It is fictional—albeit quite realistic—but worth a look.

“The intent of this course is not to teach you all the skills necessary to program in a newsroom, but to lay a solid foundation for learning those skills”, he writes by way of introduction, before recalling the developer’s three DNA elements:

1. Laziness (what could I create in order to work less?)

2. Impatience (waiting drives me crazy)

3. Hubris (I program my computer to make it do what I want)

Proof, as if one was needed, that developers’ motivations have nothing in common with those of journalists. Neither laziness nor impatience nor hubris could motivate good reporting. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Alice Antheaume (Translation by Ali Naderzad)

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French candidates bank on social media

Can an election be won on social media? That question is being increasingly asked in France, before the first round of the presidential election.

The French are very much online now: 75% of people surf the web while 25 million have Facebook accounts, out of a total population of 66 million, of whom 43 million are voters.

“The truth is that nobody has yet worked out how to change a ‘like’ on Facebook into a real vote,” declared Fleur Pellerin, digital economy adviser for socialist candidate Francois Hollande.

>> Read the piece on >>

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Trends in digital journalism for 2012

Crédit: Flickr/CC/Nathan Wells

Digital journalism is expected to undergo major changes in the coming year.

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  • “There will be blood” on the Net

In France, the number of pure players (i.e. websites with no print counterparts) per person is higher than anywhere else – kind of a “French exception” in the European media landscape. Atlantico, Le Plus, Newsring, were all launched in 2011 and the French version of the Huffington Post is due in the coming weeks. The trend is gaining momentum with the presidential election drawing near (when better to launch a news website than in such an exciting period newswise?).

According to Nicola Bruno, a journalist currently co-writing a research on pure players in France, Germany and Italy to be published next year by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, this French dynamism is visible on three levels: “1. the number of pure players in France (I counted 12 of them, all resulting from independent initiatives), 2. their maturity (France saw the first pure players in Europe, such as Agoravox in 2005, followed by Rue89, Médiapart and 3. their diversity in terms of both editorial orientation (focus on data, investigation, niche markets, community sites) and economic models (subscription-based, free…)”.

So, are there too many actors on too small a market? For Julien Jacob, head of Newsring, “there will be blood”. Nicola Bruno says that “there is no definite answer to that question. At the moment, no European pure player seems able to achieve high profits, as it is happening in the US  with Huffington Post and Politico. The reason is simple: audiences in France and the rest of Europe are much smaller than in the US, and advertising markets are not mature enough to sustain purely web-based projects”.

Is it a lost cause then? “Not quite, Nicola Bruno says. History showed that profitability is not always the main goal of these journalistic projects”. History also showed that small entities are sometimes absorbed by much bigger ones, as were the Huffington Post by AOL, the Daily Beast by Newsweek, and… Rue 89 by Le Nouvel Observateur.

  • Later reading

Which contents do you read at once? Which ones do you post on Twitter? Which ones do you share on Facebook? Which ones do you save for later reading using tools such as Instapaper or Read It Later? Users now act like human algorithms and keep sorting and classifying contents. However, the criteria they use to do so are not clear.

Do we read “later” long contents, as this presentation would suggest? Not necessarily. According to a ranking by Read It Later, which was quoted in Frédéric Filloux’s Monday Note, most saved contents (mainly editorials and new technologies-related contents) are less that 500-word long (about 2,700 signs). “No doubt that people find these tools useful, whatever the length of the article”, the Nieman Lab adds. This approach to news could change the way journalists produce information, because each article can now have two “lives”. It can be all consumed right away – in real time, but also later on when the reader has more time to enjoy it without hurrying.

  • Voice-controlled navigation

“You can now talk TO your phone rather than INTO your phone”, said Nikesh Arora, from Google, at the Monaco Media Forum. And for Pete Cashmore, from Mashable, the use of voice for controlling contents will be a must in 2012.

That is already the case with the Dragon Dictation application, which allows to dictate SMS to your cell-phone or to pronounce a key word for your phone to automatically run a Google search. Siri, on the iPhone 4S, is also a kind of assistant obeying your oral commands. What next? Human voice should soon be used as a remote control, for example with Apple’s television.

  • Texting

In its blog about new technologies, the New York Times posted a story titled Cellphones Are the New Junk Food. In the US, teenagers spend less and less time talking on the phone (685 minutes per month on average last year as opposed to 572 minutes in 2011), but they send more and more text messages (SMS and MMS): 13-to-17-year-old Americans send and receive 3,417 messages a month and around 7 messages an hour in daytime.

Source: Nielsen

The same trend is observed in France, according to a study by Pew Research focused on the behavior of phone users in various countries. With the Internet being extensively used and phones appearing as very promising, news publishers tend to create contents readily usable on mobile phones.

  • Data visualization

The amount of digital data in the world is expected to reach 2.7 zettabits in 2012. For those who feel a bit lost between bits, terabits and zettabits, that is a lot of data (find more about these units here).

France is at the forefront of this massive data production. In early December 2011, the public data website was launched: an incredible amount of numerical data, very difficult to understand (if you can understand them at all) for most people. It is precisely the job of a data journalist to free these figure from their Excel spreadsheets and to make “information immediately understandable”, as stated in a former WIP. Not all journalistic topics are based on figures but that’s an effective approach when dealing with the State’s budget for 2012 or the sharing out of resources according to budget items. Just to give you an idea, the file downloaded from looks like this:


And this is the visualization of this budget created by Elsa Fayner on her blog «Et voilà le travail»:

Crédit: Elsa Fayner

  • Live-addiction

The death of Muammar Gaddhafi, the G-20 meeting in Cannes, soccer games, political debates… Live blogging the news, allowing to report on a event in real time using texts, pictures, videos, contents from social networks and interaction with the public, are irresistibly appealing to readers. Just two facts to prove that point: 1. Live news attract an estimated 30% of the whole traffic on a generalist news website. 2. Live news are an important engagement factor as people spend much more time on this type of contents.

>> Read this WIP about live news (again)>>

  • Real-time fact checking

With the presidential election drawing closer, most French editorial offices are getting ready to fact check in (quasi) real time (a journalistic technique widely used in the Anglo-Saxon media to assess politicians’ credibility). One of the best examples is the American website, which launched a tool called “truth-o-meter” and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the holy grail of the journalistic world.

>> Read this WIP about fact checking (again)>>

  • Journalistic honesty?

In its list of 10 things every journalist should know in 2012, the website predicts that, after the closure of News of the World and the phone-hacking scandal in England, intellectual honesty will prevail. “Journalists need to be sure that the means really do justify the ends for a story and must be crystal clear about the legalities of their actions. And they need to be more transparent about the sources of stories, where the source will not be compromised. If a story originates from a press release, acknowledge it.”

>> Read the WIP about the use of anonymous sources again>>

Other important trends:

  • The use of 2 screens, which Mike Proulx referred to as “social television” in his speech at the conférence sur les nouvelles pratiques du journalisme (conference about new practices in journalism): People now watch the same program both on their TV and their computer, laptop or cell phone so that they can comment and react via Twitter and Facebook.
  • People spend increasingly more time on social networks, especially Facebook (800 million members worldwide and 23 million in France), which accounts for 95% of the time spent on community sites, according to the Comscore institute. Editors now absolutely must know what a “facebookable” content is because, as Vadim Lavrusik, of Facebook, puts it “if content is king, distribution is queen” in 2012.

What trend do you expect to prevail in 2012? Merry Christmas and best wishes to all of you for 2012.

Alice Antheaume

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Glued to liveblogging

The death of Mohammar Qadaffi. The G20 Summit in Cannes. Soccer matches. Political debates. How to keep on top of the latest information? Today, these breaking news stories are all being reported instantaneously via liveblogging. This cutting-edge digital publication format enables real-time reporting of an event, by mixing text, photos, videos, social media content, and audience interaction. And it is an incredible lure for readers.

According to estimates, it accounts for at least 30% of the traffic to a general news web site, a percentage which is increasing rapidly. Moreover, since web-users remain significantly longer on news sites using this format, liveblogging has also become an important factor in audience engagement.

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UPDATE. On Monday, November 14, France Televisions launched its continuous news platform, available on the Web and on mobile devices. (1) This project advances the concept of liveblogging to the extreme – for now. Effectively, it is based on a continuous live blog which disseminates, from 6 am to midnight (stories such as the strike at the Employment Department, the nomination of Mario Monti, the latest on DSK, the hostages liberated in Yemen, etc.), via video, photos, and written content. All this is created by livebloggers, a new breed of journalists who have become specialists in digital blogging, and who answer the audience’s questions and comments about the news in real time.

In terms of the editorial slots for importance of news, liveblogging follows this structure: if the news is of lesser importance, three written lines will suffice. If it’s a major news story, it will be the object of several entries, with various angles of development of the story, either included in that day’s live blog on the topic or covered in a different thread.

For Nico Pitney, executive editor of the Huffington Post, in an interview by the Nieman Lab, two out of three web users are attracted to liveblogging.  “We basically imagined three types of readers,” Pitney said. “One who just wanted the key facts from the story, a solid overview that’s basically a traditional news story. This person is not interested in the minute details and the live-blog coverage. Then there’s another type of user who already knows the overview and does want the key facts and live-blog coverage. And finally there’s a third kind of user — and we count this as a large percentage of our users — who wanted the overview, but then once they saw the live blog, it got them in deeper, and it made them more engaged in the story.”

And, of course, readers remain glued to their screens, caught in the spell of the live blog, a and the promise of instant updates on a big story as it unfolds.

Liveblogging: the new TV

Why are live blogs so endlessly appealing? This was the key question at a workshop organized last week at a Journalism Conference in Poitiers, France. (2)

“Readers feel as though they are creating the news,” explained Karine Broyer, Editor-in-Chief for Internet and New Medias at France 24. “During the events in Egypt, some people were asking questions on the live blog for our special correspondent, who was on location at Place Tahir in Cairo. They addressed him by his first name, Karim. And if the question was relevant, Karim Hakiki answered on the spot, perhaps giving readers the impression that their comments had played a part in the creation of the news.”

“During the televised debates of for the French Socialist Party Primary, we chose not to have a live blog on the site – too France-centric for an international media source like France 24. Perhaps we made a mistake; I don’t know. Our viewers ranted on Twitter, ‘Are you asleep or what? You have to liveblog this…’”

Types of comments on live blogs

“Internet users are participants,” notes Jonathan Parienté, a journalist covering the presidential elections at He cites three basic forms of comments on live blogs:

1. Basic comments such as “I like, I don’t like/ It’s good, it’s not good”
2. Comments that are questions
3. Comments that add information to the story.

Whereas by default on, no comment is published in a live blog until screened and approved by the editorial team, in general the rules are simple: a type 1 comment is kept if the reader expands a bit on his or her opinion; but to be honest, it doesn’t have much journalistic interest. Type 2 forms the bulk of the comments that are published in live blogs and are useful in articulating the editorial position, giving a visual sense of a dialogue between readers and editors, the latter remaining in an ultimate position of arbiters. Type 3, quite rare, is very useful from a journalistic point of view, and naturally requires verification and fact-checking before it can be published. But it can sometimes change the course of the story, since the information is coming from outside of the editorial department.

What are the successful elements of a great live blog?

It is first and foremost a question of the interest level of the story, according to Karine Broyer. “98% of the live blogs that we launch are based on breaking news.”

In addition to the compelling aspect of the news item, there are several factors key to the success of a live blog:

  • if the live blog is happening during the work day, which is considered prime time for readers on a news web site
  • if the news item of the live blog is an unfolding story, with if possible, new developments (the DSK affair, the Arab revolutions, and Fukushima are all textbook examples)
  • if the format contains several URLs: one URL to represent the entire live blog, and separate URLs for each live blog entry.

On a tool like “Cover It Live“, used by the majority of news sites in France (La Nouvelle République, Le Monde, Libération, France 24, etc.), the live blog has only one unique URL. Other sites developed internally, such as the Huffington Post, attribute one URL per blog post and thus increases the rate of sharing on social networks, allowing any user to cite the content of the live blog, a photo, an explanation or a quotation, as opposed to linking to a general title such at “live coverage of such-and-such event.”

At the Sciences Po Journalism School, learning to build liveblogging format has been a part of the curriculum since September 2010, on the same level as training for television reporting or a radio news flash. The ability to report happenings instantaneously, to give context to the news, put events into perspective, respond to readers’ questions, and to fact check, requires professional acumen and ability. And stamina, especially when the liveblogging on a particular topic goes on for days or weeks, as witnessed by Reuters sur Fukushima, from March 11 -26, which lasted 15 days and covered 298 pages.

Do too many live blogs kill the live blog?

Let’s think about it: in the end, if all media liveblog the same topics at the same time, will it lose interest? “I’m not going to stop liveblogging simply because everyone else is doing it,” says Karine Broyer. Especially since — depending on the subject at hand, the sources, the links that are included, the tone and the tempo — no two live blogs are the same, according to Jonathan Parienté. So, not to worry: there’s room for all in this growing new medium. It is, after all, is still in the experimental phase. Florence Panoussian, who oversees Web and Mobile Editorial for AFP, looks at it this way: “Having multiple live blogs is like having multiple traditional media.”

(1) Bruno Patino, Director of Digital Strategy at France Télévisions, is also the Director of the School of Journalism at Sciences Po, where I work.
(2) Workshop which in which I was a presenter. Thanks to Bérénice Dubuc, Jean-Christophe Solon, Karine Broyer, Jonathan Parienté, and Florence Panoussian, for these pour ces échanges.

Alice Antheaume (translated by Polly Lyman)

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Journalists, welcome to Robotland!

Crédit: Flickr/CC/Brett Jordan

>> Read this article in French >>

Algorithms, smart robots which sort loads of information and arrange it according to users’ requests, are entering the newsroom. This automated-manual coexistence already occurs when journalists try to make content “facebookable” or Google-friendly. To do so, they rely on algorithms roughly based on the same principle as those used for displaying “most sent/commented/blogged articles”. Robots took over human for such tasks.

What is the next step? Will such robots become standalone content creators working like online news Trojans? A piece from The Week wonders: “Are computers the cheap, new journalists?” Behind these questions, a software program designed by Narrative Science, a Chicago-based startup, can write articles made up of … comprehensible sentences.

How does it work? An algorithm agreggates data and converts it into articles. Until now, this technology has been effective only for sports pieces. But Narrative Science says that this technology can apply for finance (by scanning companies’ financial accounts) and politics (through opinion polls and election results).

Beware, Journalists… Artificial intelligence researcher Kris Hammond, who has been quoted by The New York Times, predicted that “within five years, a computer will win a Pulitzer Prize”. “For very simple, brief information, automated writing can do the trick”, says Frédéric Filloux, editor or the Monday Note and a professor at Sciences Po School of Journalism. “But for everything else, you have to look at the pole vaulting theory: Everyone can jump 5.9 feet (Editor’s note: with at least a bit of practice), but not many can jump 7.5 feet. That’s the difference between very good and great.”

Not human, no journalistic soul

Alexandre Malsch, a 26-year-old engineer who heads Melty Network, agrees with this view. “A robot will never be able to make a play on words, unless you record all existing wordplays in a huge database… In any case, a robot will never be able to write an article with soul.” And Malsch knows a lot about robots. About thirty algorithms permanently scan his website aimed at teenagers (four million unique visitors). Its goal is to “help” writers produce content in the right format, on the right subject, and at the right time. (Needless to say, there is no point in posting a story about Lady Gaga when the target audience is at school.)

Heading towards all-automated journalism?

In order to be highly visible on internet search engines, the young developer designed a publishing tool called CMS (Content Management System) that has been providing journalists since 2008 with a “practically all-automated” system. What length does the headline have to be to appear among Google’s top hits? “No writer can calculate the optimal length; only a robot can”, says Malsch.

Indeed, in CMS, the robot turns a title to green when it has the right length and to red when it is too long or too short. Same goes for key words used in a title. The writer can suggest three different titles for each content, and the robot gives each one a success rating, so the writer just has to select the title which gets 90 or 95%. In Melty’s CMS, another parameter outsourced to robots is the number of links that a specific article should contain. Robots go further than that: they also say at what time the article should appear online by analyzing a huge amount of data to figure out when the article will be the most visible on Google – something that is totally impossible for a journalist.

This hit-boosting tool is just one example of the automation being applied to publishing systems. It does not touch or change the text (except for the links and titles). “It’s just like a new Word—a tool that helps journalists but doesn’t replace their jobs, interviews, or analysis.”

Putting a human touch into the work of machines

Is this all impressive? Absolutely. Is there any cause for concern? Maybe, but all-automated journalism is certainly not around the corner. “When you see how difficult it is for translation tools to produce relevant results in real time, you realize that it is not going to happen tomorrow,” explains Filloux. All the more so since before a journalist actually starts to write a piece, he or she must collect source material that is far more important than what he or she finally uses… The original volume should be 5-10 times greater than the actual published content.”

As a (paradoxical) result, Malsch and his development team are injecting manual work back into the machines, especially for editing and selecting content, and for forcing the publication of content in real time rather than waiting for the robot to get it out. “As the world is moving forward, human choice becomes increasingly important,” concludes Malsch. “Manual work is regaining currency.”

Note: This article was written by a human being.

>> Read this article in French >>

Alice Antheaume (translated by Micha Cziffra)

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