Whenever journalists groan after a media boss says something about "doing more with less" while laying off a chunk of the staff, I’m fascinated. All kinds of industries deal with this all the time. How they do more with less leads to some interesting insights into the future of journalism.
Pardon a little military history lesson.
From the dawn of the Cold War, the United States military knew that the Eastern Bloc had more than they did. More soldiers, more guns, more tanks, more bombs, more everything. So all war planning started with larger force vs. smaller force. Planners solved the problem through the idea of force multiplication. Force multiplication is how much more effective a unit is with a new tool than the force was before. Put another way, a small force can be as effective as a much, much larger one.
In the early 1990s, the U.S. military began the Future Force Warrior program. The time had come to make soldiers “smart weapons” by adding off-the-shelf computing and technology to their battle gear (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_Warrior).
Each soldier would have smart devices with maps, GPS, advanced communications gear and up to the moment battlefield data to pierce the "fog of war" Von Clausewitz wrote about in 1832. They'd have several high-tech gun sights, including video sighting piped into heads up displays allowing them to shoot around corners.
I'll skip the bureaucratic details, but the plan was scrapped in 2007. The fatal problem with the system? Batteries. During a battle, you can't stop to plug your smart uniform into a wall socket to charge up. And carrying enough batteries to keep the system running for a good length of time weighed soldiers down too much.
What does any of this have to do with the future of journalism?
Like Cold War American military planners, journalists now face far more tasks than there are troops to handle them. Journalists, then, must think about force multipliers. How can we make a smaller force more effective? What would a Future Force Journalist look like?
They’d have the internet on a pair of eyeglasses and other smart devices. They’d be constantly tied to sensor networks, algorithmic bots and even drones, helping them look for news. Those bots, drones and sensors could even help them produce journalism.
Sound like sci-fi? Sound far-fetched? Everything I just described -- all of it -- are in development or available now.
-- Google’s Project Glass adds smart device capabilities to an eyeglass borne heads up display. It’s augmented reality, providing the user with alerts for email, directions directly into the glasses and other real-time information uses not yet devised. Journalists could, for example, see, based on GPS-derived geography and direction, where events nearby occurred, or record live interviews from their point of view.
-- Software bots that do “reporting” already exist. The LA Times crime mapping news application generates an alert when property or violent crime spikes in an area based on past crime levels. As the New York Times’ Derek Willis describes, the bulk of beat reporting is knowing what’s normal, and what’s different.
-- More and more devices are connecting to the internet and reporting data. Technologists call these internet connected sensors the Internet of Things. Citizen scientists are already creating their own pollution sensors and reporting data directly to the internet.
-- The same technology advancing smart phones is also fueling a DIY Drones movement, allowing anyone to have an aircraft capable of autonomous flight. I’ve started the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to test using drones for journalism .
Imagine what a reporter, connected to all this technology, could do. Far fetched? Hardly. These things are either already on the market or will be in the next year.
Bildnachweis: Matt Waite