Short Story: Journalist 3.0
Writer's Note: Although this story is entirely fictional, I tried to base it off real scenarios pulled from scholarly articles and journalism readings, such as Journalist 2.0 from Nikki Usher's book Interactive Journalism; the Shattered Mirror’s suggestion that media companies can be bought out by billionaire “white knights”; and Aftenposten (Norway’s largest newspaper) blaming Zuckerberg of being “the most powerful editor in the world”. I also borrowed the AI name “Winston” from Dan Brown’s Origin.
I sprinted down the side street, water dripping down my face as I tried to avoid the downpour. Around me, people were doing the same, running to the closest bit of shelter they could find. The owner of a local newsstand was closing the shutters to his shop, protecting the ever so fragile newspapers that had recently started popping back onto the market. I always thought they were a waste of paper and was glad when they disappeared ten years ago, but some people found a weird intrinsic value from reading a newspaper with their morning coffee, hence their resurgence over the past year or two.
I finally made it around the block and was instantly cast in the shadow of the towering building looming in front of me. The words “The Montreal Times” glared at me in their neon blue as I stepped out of the rain and towards the sliding glass doors. I still felt strange not working under the Gazette banner anymore. Ever since the New York Times started on their rampage of acquiring and merging with failing media publications, they decided it best to group everything under one name. As one of the first to adopt the new journalism business model, they capitalized on their place at the top of the market and bought out all the competition. They basically controlled a monopoly in the continent now, save the few government-funded establishments like our prehistoric neighbours the CBC.
“Winston, what’s the time?” I muttered under my breath.
“It’s minutes to nine, sir,” replied the trusty AI through my earpiece. Just in time, I thought. I was screened at the security check before stepping through the metal detectors. They flashed red yet the guard waved me through, probably because he knew I was in a hurry. I normally wasn’t late for work, but the rain made it ten times more difficult to step out of the comfort of my warm bed. That and I hit “Dismiss” instead of “Snooze”.
I stepped past two cleaning bots and into the elevator. “20th floor,” I commanded. Today is going to be a hectic day, I thought to myself. I had a big technology story to finish today for a noon turnaround, and then a meeting with the board of directors on the 39th floor. My boss was a strict man, and I knew I could not fail him. A couple people gave me strange looks as I hurried past them in the corridor, probably because I was drenched. I scanned their faces but could not remember their names. Not like it mattered anyway, I had a task to finish. Focus.
I made it into my corner cubicle and tapped the desk. A large screen lit up where the back wall of the cubicle was just a second ago, and a virtual keyboard popped up on the desk. I sat down and quickly got to work.
I started off by browsing some international news from our global competitors like Amazon’s Washington Post and Google-owned Al Jazeera. Apparently, there was some controversy surrounding last week’s funeral of former US president Donald Trump; there were claims that someone doctored the crowd photo to give the impression of a larger turnout. Refugees from Tuvalu were being accommodated in neighbouring Pacific islands after their home was swallowed by the rising sea levels. Mark Zuckerberg was also spotted in Montreal last night…what business could he possibly have in Canada?
I quickly closed off those tabs and put myself to work. My mind suddenly seemed to go into hyperdrive, and I was able to block out all other distractions.
For the next hour, I was able to make two phone interviews, design an infographic, hash out a rough 1000 words, along with a couple lines of HTML and CSS for when the article would go up on the web. As a journalist in 2039, I was expected to do the whole works—from background research to interviews to coding. I was a researcher, a writer, a graphic designer, a hacker; and so much more. My fingers whirred over the keyboard as I continued in my focused state. Out of the corner of my vision I saw a shadow approach me, and my head did a quick swivel, making the intruder jump.
“I…I’m sorry sir,” stammered the intern, the mug of coffee trembling in his hand as he gave me an apprehensive look. “I was told to bring this to you.” He offered me the mug with an outstretched hand, almost as if afraid to come near me.
“I don’t drink coffee,” I answered briskly.
He nodded and quickly turned away.
I would never get back those ten seconds of my life. I turned my head back towards the screen, trying to finish writing up this HTML before 11AM.
“Excuse me sir, but do you remember in what year Vice ceased their production of articles?” asked a woman’s voice to my left. I managed to contain my frustration.
“2029,” I answered without looking up. “Right after Google released their verification software.” My mind was an encyclopedia for information.
It was 11:50AM when I finally uploaded the article online. The verification software would take a couple minutes to process it, and then it would be up for the world to see.
Satisfied, I got up from my desk as Winston buzzed in my ear. “You’re requested in the 39th floor meeting room sir.” I suddenly felt nervous at the prospect of having to face the board. Was I getting a pay cut? Or worse, were they going to lay me off like they did half of the newsroom last year?
The 39th floor was more than just the top of the building. With its glass walls and sweeping views of the city, it was the cockpit from where the greatest journalism minds in the country controlled their empire. As I stepped into the meeting room, every head looked in my direction. A dozen men and women in formal attire were seated around a large oval table, all looking as if they were awaiting my arrival.
“Just in time,” my boss, Monsieur Bouchard, nodded approvingly. The man at the head of the table got up and studied me. It was Mark Zuckerberg. The most powerful editor in the world.
“You see, ladies and gentlemen, our experiment was a success. Facebook’s AI technology is unmatched to date,” he said, his lizard-like eyes boring into me. Everyone clapped. The room suddenly felt colder. My heart started beating faster. Something wasn’t right.
“Not only is it driven and capable, but it is also able to complete programmed tasks in record time,” he continued. “To its inner core, it is programmed to focus, and hence will not let distractions get in the way of completing these tasks.”
Why is everyone watching me?
“I’m just not sure people in the newsroom can warm up to a thing like this,” said vice-president Madame Francoise, a stern-looking woman in her mid fifties. “How are its social interaction skills?”
“Bring in Ralph,” said M. Bouchard. As if on queue, the anxious intern from earlier stepped in, still sizing me up uneasily. “Well?” asked Bouchard.
“I…I don’t know, sir,” he started. “He…he did seem kinda rude,” he muttered as he glanced at me nervously.
I need to get out of here. Something feels wrong. I was still aware of everyone’s eyes on me. I scanned the room, but the only escape was through the window which gave way to 39 stories below.
Mme Francoise wrote something down on her clipboard. “And what about its knowledge core?”
A blonde girl with black frames spoke up. “When I asked him about Vice, he answered without a glitch,” she said. M. Bouchard nodded approvingly.
“And its memories?” said Bouchard.
“As far as diagnostics tell us,” said Zuckerberg, “its implanted human memories were successful, allowing it to reminisce on things which it never did, as if it did do them. It also has the capacity to ‘feel emotions’, with certain algorithms triggering human-like reactions when faced with certain stimuli. With a couple more improvements, I think we can get this thing as human as possible and out onto the market soon enough.”
More clapping. I felt tense.
“Bueno! You have convinced me,” said an old Latino guy in a striped suit and a thick accent, speaking up for the first time. “As majority shareholder of the Times, I want exclusive rights to this technology for the first few months after it is completed.”
“I’m sure we can work out something later, Mr. Slim,” said Zuckerberg curtly. “Regardless, this marks a new era for journalism. In the 1900s we had our traditional gatekeeper reporters, then the 2000s saw the rise of the hacker journalist, Journalist 2.0. Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to Journalist 3.0, the future of this industry.”
I felt like Man before his Maker. Or before the devil himself.
Zuckerberg’s smile did not reach his eyes. He pulled out a remote and pointed it at me. The voice in my head no longer said “focus!” Instead, it screamed JUMP! Without hesitating I turned as quickly as I could and faced the window, ready to break through. The last thing I saw was a metallic, humanoid reflection staring back at me before everything went black.
Newman, N. (2017). Journalism, Media and Technology Predictions 2017. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism
Public Policy Forum (2017). The Shattered Mirror: News, Democracy and Trust in the Digital Age. Ottawa: Public Policy Forum.
Usher, Nikki (2016). Interactive Journalism: Hackers, Data, and Code. Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
Van Dalen, Arjen (2012). The Algorithms Behind the Headlines. Journalism Practice. City: Routledge.