If technology has created the problems the news industry faces, can it be harnessed to provide a solution too?
The question hits you when you check out ex-NDTV CEO Vikram Chandra’s new venture, Editorji Technologies Pvt Ltd. The 10-month old Artificial Intelligence or AI-based news app is described as the Spotify of video news. The app/tech reaches about 15 million people, says Chandra. A million of these are through direct downloads and rest by being embedded on services or devices. Such as Airtel (an investor along with HT Media) or Panasonic and through strategic tie-ups with Twitter, ShareChat, among half a dozen other platforms/apps. Editorji offers 200 video news stories a day in a feed personalised for you. They are selected by experienced news editors from a pool of sources including wire agencies such as ANI, AFP, AP. Each story is just 20 seconds and you swipe to go to the next one. There are longer stories of two-three minutes each with explainers but without any opinion. The app allows you to create your own newscast based on stories you like, which can be shared. The minute a story is uploaded, the AI takes over. Your feed is personalised based on everything from your locality to what you watch or search.
And that brings us to the question this column began with.
In the pre-AI era, we were more likely to come across another point of view or read stuff on a random subject. Now, across the world, algorithms are driving people into ideological echo chambers resulting in a vicious, corrosive polarisation that is tearing several countries apart. This, in turn, has created a crisis of credibility and sustenance for mainstream media. TV news that is advertising-, and therefore, viewership-driven simply goes after the lowest common denominator. Newspapers and a handful of websites continue to do journalism.
But feet on the ground, good quality journalism is expensive and almost impossible to discover in the online deluge. That, in turn, has made Google and Facebook the gatekeepers who walk away with roughly three-fourths of all digital advertising globally. An article in Business Standard may be read by say a million people, but it might earn money for only about 10-20 per cent of that audience.
“The way platforms (Google/ Facebook) operate makes it difficult to sustain. The heart of the issue is how algorithms are designed. If they are designed for time, scale and speed they cater to sensationalism, people want to be titillated,” says John Ridding, CEO, Financial Times.
The entire fake news factory in several countries relies on this bot-driven, algorithm-driven ecosystem. “Hillary Clinton is a Murderer” is likely to get millions of Americans clicking on a mythical story that makes money for an army of teenagers sitting in Veles, Macedonia. In India, Twitter, Facebook and most importantly, WhatsApp are used with the same effect to offer fake narratives on history, society or politics.
But isn’t Editorji another manifestation of the same AI-driven ecosystem? Any form of personalising means an ideological ghettoisation that kills serendipity. Chandra is emphatic that Editorji doesn’t do that. There are about 60 content people in an in-house staff of 75 making it a “human-machine hybrid app which has serendipity built in,” says Chandra. It is a point he keeps emphasising. For instance, if like me, you are not interested in sports, it will still show you the occasional sports story that is too big to miss; say P V Sindhu winning a title.
“Sundar Pichai (Google’s CEO) once told me that AI will work only when people use it to disrupt their own business. And I am trying to disrupt the news business. We have nothing to lose: No turf, no channel, no website. In fact, we are not interested in what Editorji can do itself as an app. That is not the core of the firm’s offering. I genuinely want to change the (news) ecosystem,” says he. The firm has registered a bunch of patents which drive the app. The more platforms that use the underlying technology to offer plain video news without bias or opinion the better it is.
If Indians start relying on a pure reportage-based news app instead of shrieky news channels or dodgy WhatsApp forwards, technology would have helped the news industry begin its journey to recovery.―Authored by Vanita Kohli Khandekar for Business Standard