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Semantic Web: Journalism’s future or demise?

The Web today is a system of interlinked documents. You do a Google search and results appear with some accuracy for what you’re looking for. But what if, instead of a system of documents, the Web was a system of data?

It’s the idea behind the Semantic Web, a term coined by Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web. On the Semantic Web, machines can read the meaning of the information within documents through metadata. A search on the Semantic Web would dwarf what we’re capable of searching on Google today.

In this “global semantic economy,” Dan Conover imagines a world where the journalism industry can resurrect. Conover is a former newspaper reporter who started the blog Xark! in 2005. In a recent post, Conover argues the journalism industry must adopt standards of codifying data if it is to benefit from the Semantic Web. By doing this, news companies can organize their data and sell specific data or datasets for a profit.

From selling attention to selling value

Conover writes:

Today, as in 2005, as in 1905, most news is organized and communicated as “stories.” To be a story, a collection of information must have a who, a when, a what, a where, and in most cases, a why and a how.”

But that traditional approach to news leaves out the sixth W: “Who cares?” A story must be potentially interesting to a valuable audience, or it isn’t worth producing.

This is the fatal flaw with a theory of the press that is based on stories. It assumes that the only information that has value is the information that seems immediately interesting.

The current business models in journalism don’t and won’t work. In a blog post titled “Advertising is not enough,” Conover says online advertisements and pay walls are simply reincarnations of the same newspaper revenue structures of the past – ads and subscriptions.

Paywalls won’t be a game changer in journalism, he says. And the problem with online ads is they don’t generate enough revenue to produce high-quality journalism. If online ads are the only revenue source, “You’d better learn to make that content cheaper and more sensational than your already cheap, sensational competitors,” Conover writes. In other words, journalism organizations are selling attention.

The way to add value to content is to use a standard that links an organization’s data – say, the information within a newspaper’s articles – to a wider web of data. Journalism organizations could become what the Nieman Journalism Lab calls “data hubs.”

In a global semantic economy, every piece of information is tagged with its meaning and linked to every other piece of information related to it, making way for more targeted, detailed queries. The value of the information increases as people and businesses purchase the data for “new information products.” Conover says in this economy, copyright and intellectual property laws could trace the value of the original contribution and distribute “marginal payments over vast scales.”

The standards for the journalism industry put forth by Conover have nothing to do with the ethics of journalism. They bypass news judgment, fairness and accuracy, what he calls “three wildly subjective concepts.” Instead, Semantic Web standards dictate that each piece of data is tagged with its original source (for example, a document, another publication’s interview, your own interview). Not only will standards elevate objectivity and credibility, standards also weed out faux journalists (Conover points to TV host Glenn Beck) who make statements not backed by data. Conover says journalism organizations that follow the standards could become certified.

Will the world still need journalists?

In January, Watson, IBM’s supercomputer, competed against Jeopardy’s two all-time champions – and crushed them. Watson illustrates how far technology has come, but also the fact machines today cannot understand all of the nuances inherent in human language. (For the final round of one game, Watson answered “Toronto” for the category of “U.S. Cities.”)

However, as advances are made in the technology, could machines one day replace reporters?

It’s likely machines will replace some reporters’ tasks, but it’s unlikely that a piece of technology will be winning a Pulitzer any time soon. Although they can pull together data to compile a story, machines cannot read and understand humor, emotion, slang – generally, the elements I call the “humanness” of stories.

In one example I envision — Software can pull data about two people for a marriage announcement, composing a story about where they are from, what they studied at college and what they do as a career. But data does not describe how the couple met or how they felt on their first date. Only human reporters can tell those parts of the story.

So the Semantic Web appears to be more the robot helper than the reporter killer. More precise ways of sorting through data will allow journalists to search wider and dig deeper for a story.

In this new online world, the role of the journalist will have to change. A Nieman Journalism Lab article predicts as the industry moves toward a “data hub” identity, the journalist’s job will shift away from on-the-ground reporting to more curation of data and fact-checking as organizations rely increasingly on Semantic Web data and crowdsourcing.

The first step is the hardest…

It’s possible what happened with the journalism industry and the Web will happen to the industry and the Semantic Web – the industry will catch on only when there’s no choice.

Some news organizations — most notably The New York Times and the BBC — are dabbling with the Semantic Web. But building a new, comprehensive system will take millions of dollars – and cash-strapped news organizations may have to simply wait for outside firms to create the technology.

Another hurdle will be cultivating the skills needed to incorporate Semantic Web standards into a news organization. Reporters not only have to be able to research, report, write, edit, aggregate and curate content, they must also code data and have some understanding of programming.

Perhaps even a greater hurdle is conceptualizing how the Semantic Web will work in business and journalism. It may just sound too sci-fi for some.

Conover acknowledges that his ideas may be ahead of the reality of companies’ willingness to take on this challenge. But, he adds, “It is not too early to begin talking about these ideas.”

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