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Metadata Matters: Why Journalism’s Future is in the Weeds

As the news industry grapples with seismic changes to its business model, the ability to deliver customised content to audiences will be critical to long-term sustainability. To do that, news organisations need clear metadata structures and workflows that facilitate content distribution. But despite the rationale, many newsrooms around the world have been slow to adopt the technological innovations required to stay digitally relevant. Vin Crosbie, a media consultant and professor of new media at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, explains why.  

Vincent Crosbie

Vincent Crosbie

The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated trends that have long been underway in the news business – like declining ad revenue and slumping subscriptions. But is Covid-19 a tipping point?

If there's a particular border in history where the industrial era changes to the informational era, I think it's right now, 2020. The coronavirus has a lot to do with it. 

What do you mean? Why do you mark 2020 as the beginning of the so-called information era, rather than 2004, when Facebook was created?

Things did actually change around 2004, 2005, because that's basically when, in the developed countries, roughly half of the population had broadband. So yes, the switch was technically earlier than 2020. But what has happened because of this pandemic is that we've realised, hey, wait a minute, we can do our jobs from home, we can be taught from home or teach from home, and we have the technologies to do much more in the field of journalism.

If it weren't for the quarantine, we probably wouldn't have realised that this is possible for another five or 10 years.

Realising that we have the technology to work from home is one thing. Using technology to reinvent journalism is another matter altogether.

Many in the news media have historically viewed new media as simply a paperless way of distributing old content. But there's a lot more going on. One of the changes from the industrial era to the informational era is user choice. Before about 2005, everybody got the same thing, the same news. Editors picked stories that they thought would have the greatest common interest. That industrial-era limitation doesn't exist online. 

What we're seeing right now is that people are finding ways to get a more customised mix of information. People can go online to hunt and gather what stories pique their needs, interests, tastes, and beliefs. Initially, they did this through search engines. Now, technologies have been able to give them feeds that are much more customised. 

A good example of this is Facebook. Every one of its 2.6 billion users sees an entirely different mix of content when they go online. It’s purely custom, and it’s the same for Pandora, Spotify, Flipboard, or any other platform where users are provided with a more precise match of content. Companies that can deliver custom content are more successful than those that can't.

Unfortunately, traditional mass media companies didn’t notice this need early enough, leaving the news industry unprepared as it enters this algorithmically-based moment, where stories and content are surfaced with the help of complex metadata structures.  

In other words, in the informational era, people are getting a more customised mix of news than traditional media packages can deliver. And that's why people are now going to Facebook and Twitter and other customised platforms to obtain news, information, and entertainment. Mass media companies are losing audiences because of that; they need more sophisticated tagging [in the form of metadata] to increase the potential for customisation.

How important is metadata in helping news organisations regain relevance?

It’s key. With industry-standard coding like IPTC Standards, news organisations have the ability to tag stories with what the news is, where it is, and what the subject is, among other things. This can then help develop new audiences and can also help media companies find ways to take content and fit it into social media, search engines, and other distribution mechanisms. The ultimate objective is to help them find new markets for their content, rather than just simply keeping their content to their own printed edition or their own websites.

Reading between the lines, you seem to be saying that the news organisations that fail to make smart use of metadata won’t be around much longer. Is that accurate? 

Yes. We’re in an apocalyptic change from the industrial era to the new millennium where it is absolutely vital to have content that is machine processed. It’s not that machines are taking away jobs from journalists. Rather, it's supplementing them, so that the journalist can deal with higher-level concerns and higher-level thinking.

And yet, even today, some news organisations still don’t understand the importance of metadata and tagging. How do we help those journalists who simply don't understand the value?

Having technology imposed on the industry has been a part of the problem for years and is a key reason why adoption rates of new technology have historically been low. So that’s part of the problem. Another challenge is habit and institutional inertia. 

But publishers need to understand that if they do these things, their story will be more widely disseminated and more widely read or seen. It can’t be seen as a chore they have to do. On the contrary, it’s a job that must be done to help their story get out there and be read by more people. Tagging a story could take a minute, and might help them get 25% to 40% more readership, more viewership.

Unfortunately, it might still take a long time to get some editors, publishers, and broadcasters to take metadata seriously. The problem is that technology is accelerating exponentially, and the people who don't do these things now are only going to be left further behind. And in another five or 10 years, they may not be in business. So, they really need to do these things now. It should be a no brainer, but the problem is trying to teach them that.

To put it simply, metadata is often viewed as too deep in the weeds. But the weeds that we're playing in are actually a pretty important patch of land.

This is all very compelling, but again, some news organisations seem convinced that they can survive on the quality of their content alone. Why is that not entirely accurate? 

When, 500 years ago, scribes stopped disseminating information by pen and switched to the printing press, they added atop their works instructions about when and where in a publication to include what they wrote. That “markup information” for printers was the industrial era’s metadata. 

Now that we’ve entered the information era, when content is delivered by computers rather than printers, delivery boys, and postal workers, we absolutely must use this new era’s metadata if stories are to reach the billions of people who consume news online. The reverse is also true: news and information that lacks this new era’s metadata will fail to disseminate and lose audiences.

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