The Future of the News Is You

I recently had the good fortune to visit the MIT Media Lab. These days, the Media Lab is much more than media, of course. Its focuses include building smart cities and urban farming, efficient vehicles, and better artificial limbs. There's a lot going on there, but as a media columnist, one area caught my eye: a project on the future of news.

As Media Lab's associate director, Andrew Lippman, put it, it's about the democratization of everything. Lippman is a believer in the power of the internet to democratize news delivery, and he showed off a tool that could help.

The tool was set on about a 72-inch flat screen. It listed the top stories of the day, and within each top story was a pile of stories in various formats from around the world pulled from various internet feeds. If you were interested in ISIS, Ebola, or even Kim Kardashian (which, sadly, was one of the top news stories on the day I was visiting the lab), you could touch the screen, bring up a series of stories, and then explore certain aspects of a story in-depth to whatever level you wanted. You could look at these stories across categories or on a timeline. As you explored, you could get a much better sense of the news of the day and how it fit together in a broader tapestry of news.

Lippman discussed, with the group of assembled media, how he believes today's most popular news broadcaster is Jon Stewart-because he has an uncanny way of mixing news, humor, and historical news clips, stitching them together in a way that's both funny and informative. He called him the Walter Cronkite of the new generation and a voice of authority. This is due, in large part, to his clever use of media to help tell his stories.

The tool MIT's media mavens created certainly was cool to look at-and it made for a great demonstration of the power of the Media Lab-but what kind of application could it possibly have in the real world, outside the cozy confines of a laboratory setting? Most of us aren't walking up to our TVs and managing our news in this fashion.

But Lippman discussed a broader vision for the tool beyond wowing a group of technology journalists. He foresaw a news creation tool, one that could take this ability to manipulate and categorize news in various formats (video, text, and audio) and pull it together into personal broadcasts.

These broadcasts may focus on the news broadly or explore a topic in-depth. Imagine, for example, if everyone could create his own Ken Burns-like documentary and share it on social media. It has the potential to be the YouTube of news in that if it were distributed correctly, it could allow people to drag and drop pieces to build, share, and distribute a news story package easily.

In this vision, we still need the core news organizations, of course. This is not strictly about a community journalism kind of scenario, but one that pulls existing news sources together in order to build personal broadcasts. Lippman suggested the idea is for us to all become Jon Stewarts, but we will have access to the entire breadth of internet news-and we too can build our own Daily Show-style video montages. The key is to create great, easy-to-use tools and to pull the technology behind what we saw inside the Media Lab into an app or web service people could use to easily create these things.

If we were to democratize the creation of news in this fashion, then the future of the news would be one in which news organizations share various pieces on the internet (as they are doing now) and in which other people are mashing them up in various ways to create their own broadcasts with their own take on how it fits together. And Lippman doesn't necessarily think this has to be a series of cute cat videos. He believes that if we're given the right tools, we can all participate in the news and become a better educated society for it. I have seen the future of the news, and it is us.