Can News be Saved? DeWitt Wallace Center Plans to Try

The headlines about newspapers are bleak: In December, Detroit papers curtailed home deliveries saying, “We’re fighting for our survival.” The Christian Science Monitor ceased all print publication and is now available only online. The venerable Chicago Tribune filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Popular person-to-person, online advertising services such as Craigslist and Monster.com have gutted a core revenue stream for newspapers, classified advertising. Layoffs and closures are common and news sections are shrinking as old business models crumble in the face of electronic innovation.

As a consequence, the “watchdog” role of the press is in jeopardy, says Professor of PPS and Economics James “Jay” Hamilton, the new director of the DeWitt Wallace Center (DWC) for Media and Democracy. Fewer news outlets than ever can afford to devote resources to the time-consuming, investigative journalism needed to uncover wrongdoing in government or corporate affairs.

A related problem—given that consumer advertising drives the creation of news and information—is that relatively little of the information essential to effective participation in our society is made accessible to low-income people. These knowledge gaps threaten democracy, which relies on an informed electorate.

“There’s a gap between what people want to know and what they need to know, and for most people, it doesn’t pay to be informed,” Hamilton said.

Over the next five years, DWC intends to focus its research and activities on stimulating debate about, and developing interdisciplinary solutions to, these fundamental market failures. DWC’s activities will:

  • Advance development of the new field of computational journalism.
  • Examine the potential of nonprofit media ownership and nonprofit or foundation subsidies for creation and distribution of information.
  • Probe new ways of adding monetary value to hard news content online.
  • Examine the supply and effects of partisan political information on voter behavior in the Internet age.
  • Identify barriers to information creation and consumption by people with low incomes. Goals are to probe how residents of low-income communities get information, how their decisions are affected by the information they can access, and how their choices in terms of payday lending, mortgages, education and health care could change with better information access.

Hamilton’s strategies for prompting innovation in these areas include new faculty hires, conferences, research grants and new courses.

New faculty will be selected for DWC’s two endowed professorships by next fall. Hamilton is seeking to fill the Knight Chair, from which William Raspberry retired last June, with a journalist who will lead an effort to develop the new field of computational journalism. As a natural progression from the data-driven approaches used by investigative reporters, the new field uses technological tools and artificial intelligence to access, analyze, aggregate and distribute news.

A pioneering example, funded by the Knight Foundation, is everyblock.com, which mines public data sets, daily media reports, government proceedings and local Internet conversations in order to generate neighborhood-specific information, such as crime reports, restaurant reviews or construction permits.

“The idea is to use technology to lower the cost of doing journalism,” Hamilton says. If algorithms can be used to discern patterns in data (such as crime waves), journalists can follow up and investigate causes of the patterns. As a progression from this, Hamilton says, in the near future, algorithms may also be used to automate the writing of some types of news stories based on data.

In partnership with colleagues at UNC, Stanford, the University of Montana, the University of Wisconsin and The Renaissance Computing Institute, Hamilton also has applied for grant funding to launch a new Center for Computational Journalism. The center has comprehensive plans for focusing collaborative efforts among social scientists and computer scientists.

 “I’m excited about the potential interactions with other Duke programs, such as statistics, computer science and information science,” he noted.

Hamilton also is seeking a practicing journalist focused on the future of journalism for the Eugene C. Patterson Chair, currently occupied by Professor of the Practice Susan Tifft. Her 10-year appointment to the position will conclude at the end of this academic year.

Computational JournalismTo stimulate inquiry into nonprofit ownership and subsidy of news, Hamilton is planning a late-spring conference here at Duke for academics, journalists, and philanthropists. Several news organizations, such as NPR and the St. Petersburg Times, operate as nonprofits or are nonprofit-owned, and foundations already subsidize many genres of news reporting. The conference will draw on the experience of existing organizations and explore the legal, financial and ethical hurdles to succeeding as a news nonprofit.

DWC also proposes new research into other innovative business models for news organizations. If news organizations could better use information about their readers’ online behavior to attract advertisers seeking increasingly targeted audiences, they might solve one of their major problems: an inability to capture revenue in return for providing online content.

Your buying patterns—recorded each time you use your grocery store member card—already are being used to target you for particular sales promotions. However, privacy concerns currently limit efforts to monetize online news content. New research would examine how these concerns could be allayed, or what it would take for consumers to see the loss of privacy as a worthwhile trade-off for acquiring information.

During a 2007-08 sabbatical year at Stanford, Hamilton wrote a book with co-author Scott de Marchi, slated for publication this fall. The book applies principles for predicting purchasing behavior based on personality traits to other decisions, such as voting, choice of marriage partner and driving behavior.

“Our theory is that if I know how you make choices in the private sector, such as your product loyalty, I can use that information to predict your voting or political behavior.”

Hamilton recognizes that his goals for DWC are ambitious. In fact, he has calculated his odds of winning the NSF computational journalism grant at 4 percent. Nevertheless, he’s enjoying the challenge.

“We want to generate new ideas and give news organizations a road map for the future. This really would be putting knowledge in the service of society.”

See also “Deep Throat Meets Data Mining,” in Miller McCune magazine.