The Algorithm Is an Editor

 

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The excerpt below from the Wall Street Journal article by Jeffrey Herbst  clearly makes the point why in the future blogs such as this one are important: since social media and smart phones  may soon become the major source of news for most people and the tech companies that are providing it have their own agenda which income inequality may not be high on the list of after Bernie Sanders is gone, the American public may need the constant prodding of The Quaker Activist and other reminders of the ever-widening and highly destructive gap between rich and poor.

It could be argued that the tech firms are not news companies because they don’t have reporters. However, that 20th-century model does not really apply to modern firms. What the social media companies have is a treasure trove of information about anyone with a smartphone or Internet service and about the choices they make. Information arrived at through data mining, such as the public mood on particular issues, is already making its way into presidential debates and other political discussions. Google is training reporters on how to use its data. It is hard to imagine that the tech companies will resist further exploiting their store of information so that they can remain mere “pipes” in an increasingly competitive market.

As these companies enter further into the news arena they will have to develop an understanding of where their editorial role fits into American and world society and how they see themselves aligning with societal goals. Certainly a fundamental challenge will be to delineate how their for-profit imperative and shareholder demands interact with their role as providers of information.

The legacy media companies addressed this issue by trying, admittedly with varying degrees of success, to establish walls between the departments responsible for editorials, news reporting and advertising. This will be far more difficult in an era where algorithms—not editors—often control the content and ads a person consumes.

An informed citizenry depends on robust sources of news. How technology firms position themselves as news providers, and the choices they make as a result, will have an effect not only on the companies themselves but also on the quality of our democracy.

Mr. Herbst is the president and chief executive officer of the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

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