Signal-to-Noise and Related Content

    by Benjamin Melançon
    April 29, 2008

    Related Content: If you’re in California’s bay area, don’t miss Drupal Day on Friday May 3, a special open session of NewsTools2008’s mixing up journalists, technologists, entrepreneurs.

    Journalism’s charge is to increase the signal to noise ratio.

    Some commentators on stuff, including my favorite marketing guru, say the irrelevant noise has begun encroaching on the signal that matters, after some years of improvement driven by online tools.


    I wish I could tell you the easy answer. I can’t. I just know that the faltering signal is a problem.

    As mentioned by IdeaLab bloggers and elsewhere, solving this problem is a key opportunity for people doing journalism.

    With original investigation and with editorial discretion, real reporting serves to increase the signal and filter out the noise.

    However, most ways of generating revenue from journalism come from the editorial role, and news organizations are losing control of this role. Yet the real issue isn’t whether Google, Inc. or the New York Times Company does the filtering, it’s how whoever has this power uses it.


    Ultimately, we can trust controlling the flow of information to no one but ourselves. The future of journalism (and consequently democracy, and humanity, and all that jazz) depends on not allowing private interests to monopolize the lifeblood of human organization, communication.

    If we expect to pay for aggregation and filtering services through attention, loss of privacy, and lack of control, and the work of hard reporting is not paid directly, then journalism truly is in trouble.

    Subverting this expectation will help build an environment where people sustain hard journalism. We can and should do aggregation ourselves. Investigation we should expect to pay for.

    At NewsTools2008 (Journalism That Matters, the Silicon Valley sessions) this week I will be talking to anyone who will listen about mass communication for collaboration with moderation by the many, not the few.

    But the reason I have the privilege of a blog at PBS.org/idealab is a less ambitious, more practical project: Related Content.

    From before proposing this tool and in the time since, developers have released dozens of modules relating to relating content in Drupal.

    What will set the Knight News Challenge-funded Related Content project apart from others is the focus on using computer-suggested relations to make it easier for people to establish human-vetted connections.

    So far the project has its information architecture – URI (web address) based, rather than Drupal node-based – and a plugin system to use other modules for related content suggestions. The first public release is coming soon.

    The goal is to greatly lower the barrier people’s participation in increasing the signal to noise ratio. And yes, to prove we can do it ourselves. Not as opposed to journalistic editorial decisionmaking, which will always have a role in journalism, but as opposed to the overarching aggregators (online and off) that tempt us to exchange control of communication for convenience.

    Tagged: aggregation communication control dissemination investigation journalism privacy PWGD related content

    One response to “Signal-to-Noise and Related Content”

    1. JD Lasica says:

      I’ll be there Friday, Ben, talking about Ourmedia and Drupal. Look me up.

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