If there’s one thing you can count on in modern life, one truism that will never let you down, it is this: You want more Gs. That’s true in the thousands-of-dollars sense, and it’s definitely true in the better-mobile-networks sense.
And from a media perspective, better networks tend to produce, or at least emphasize, different types of content. The first iPhone allowed only 2G data, which had roughly the throughput of passing a manila folder with one sticky note inside, and publishers stuck to the relatively basic webpages they were serving their still-partially-dialup desktop audiences. Then 3G came along and enabled the boom in podcasts: downloading shows over the air solved the usability problems attached to transferring MP3s via cable and dock, and podcast episodes were just big enough to be annoying over 2G but still small enough to not choke 3G. Then 4G and LTE made mobile video tolerable and gave us the first janky glimpses of AR and VR.
As you’ve probably heard, 5G’s around the corner, if that corner is “mainstream use is still at least a year away,” and it’s expected to be at least 20× the speed of 4G. So it makes sense that forward-looking publishers are planning ahead for what it might bring.
Among those is The New York Times, which has described some of its plans in a Medium post. Here are Aharon Wasserman, Serena Parr and Joseph Kenol:
To explore what kind of storytelling opportunities 5G might enable, this year we’ve launched a 5G Journalism Lab. We’ve partnered with Verizon, which is providing us with early access to 5G networking and equipment for us to experiment with.
We believe 5G’s speed and lack of latency could spark a revolution in digital journalism in two key areas: how we gather the news and how we deliver it. In the short term, having access to 5G will help The Times enhance our ability to capture and produce rich media in breaking news situations. Over time, as our readers start to use 5G devices, we will be able to further optimize the way our journalism is delivered and experienced.
The Times’ vision for what 5G will do to journalism is still a bit vague, but the 5G Lab’s work includes both internal-to-the-Times uses and the provision of news to an audience with 5G in their pockets:
— Better and more reliable data connections for its journalists in the field, including “exploring how 5G can help our journalists automatically stream media — HD photos, videos and audio, and even 3D models — back to the newsroom in real-time, as they are captured.”
— More and better AR and VR immersive experiences within stories, allowing readers “to explore new environments that are captured in 3D.”
Those are fine areas to explore, but it’s safe to say the most significant impacts 5G will have are probably ones publishers can’t anticipate today. The reality will almost certainly be weirder than we think. So just as a brainstorming exercise, here are a few possibilities that come to my mind.
Always-streaming reporters. Think of what Twitter has done to reporters: turned them from “people who report and write stories that are edited and published online every so often” to “people who are constantly sharing links, commenting on events, live-tweeting press conferences, giving granular updates, asking for help, and having human conversations, all in public and in real time.” It’s a big shift! And it’s one that, let’s be honest, is primarily driven by technology; there was no giant market demand or particular financial incentive for us to become tweeting machines. We did it because the technology — from phones in our pocket to the creation of app stores to Twitter’s underlying instantiation of the social graph and 140-character genius — was easy enough, convenient enough, and rewarding enough to hand over a share of our day.
Twitter is still overwhelmingly text, because that’s the format it incentivizes and that’s easiest to produce. What happens when 5G does that for streaming video or even AR? Could 5G’d reporters become Justin.tv-style livestreamers by default? For high-value segments of publishing, could access to a reporter’s livestream become part of a premium package? (“Join the $500-a-month tier of NYTimes.com and get exclusive access to Michael Barbaro’s livestream as he records The Daily every evening.”) I’d imagine that the most traditional news organizations would also be the most hesitant to do something like this — but why wouldn’t celebrities and athletes want to play in a space that sells both exclusivity and intimacy? And if they do it, why wouldn’t some digital-native outfit like BuzzFeed?
If that sounds implausible, imagine pitching this to a bunch of journalists 10 years ago: “How’d you like to publish 50 little messages a day, some about your beat, some about whatever’s on your mind, mostly from your phone, all while getting yelled at by random Nazis?” And yet Twitter lives.
There’s nothing unique about 5G that would allow this; you can livestream now. But you could also watch videos on your 2G O.G. iPhone; you just didn’t do much of it until fast data became ubiquitous. New technologies often establish new norms as much as they enable new products.
A new kind of rewrite. Let’s say that newsrooms aren’t sure about their reporters streaming out to the public. What about them streaming back to the newsroom?
The age-old tradition of rewrite involved a bunch of reporters working on a story, then sending feeds of what they found to one person back at the office, who’d charged with assembling those raw materials into a final coherent story.
Except those raw materials aren’t all that raw; they’re semi-processed ore that has already gone through the notebooks and minds of the reporters involved. What if the story needs a key stat that a reporter has in her notebook but didn’t include in the feed? What if something important that happened at that city council meeting that the reporter didn’t notice?
When high-throughput video streaming from our Apple Spectacles becomes normal — with the processing offloaded to our iPhones and the data streaming over 5G — reporters might be expected to stream their day back to the newsroom, where a rewrite reporter might work with (or at least have access to) those truly raw feeds. Need a quote from the mayor? You know the city hall reporter was talking to him this morning, and you know what the mayor looks like — ask the computer-vision/video-search app on your computer to look for the mayor’s face in the reporter’s stream and pull out everything he said. Did the cops reporter mention an interesting police report about James Smith at the watercooler? If she ever saw the report, it’s in her stream and OCR’d; just search her stream for “James Smith,” limited to video streamed from the police department, and it’ll pop up.
These sorts of things may seem far-fetched. (Not to mention a little authoritarian; reporters aren’t used to the sort of employer surveillance that, say, Amazon delivery drivers face.) But advances in machine learning, computer vision, and other segments of AI will make finding that needle in a haystack as easy as a Google search before long. And what it’ll need is a lot of haystacks — the raw material that will make up an incredibly rich archive of a city. Reporters will be their miners.
Remember George Allen, the former Virginia governor and senator who lots of people thought would be the GOP nominee for president in 2008? In 2006, his Senate reelection campaign got derailed when a tracker for his opponent recorded Allen calling him a racial slur. If that tracker, S. R. Sidarth, hadn’t been filming, it’s entirely possible that Allen would have won reelection and changed the 2008 presidential race. And the reason he was filming is that video technology — the cost to observe and record, essentially — had dropped so much by 2006 that giving a camera to a college kid and asking him to follow Allen around made financial and logistical sense it wouldn’t have 20 years earlier. Ubiquitous data creates new use cases that sporadic data doesn’t.
The Newsroom of Things. If ingestable streams of real-world experiences become the currency of the realm, well, do they all need to be attached to reporters? Early experiments with sensor journalism have sometimes run into roadblocks caused by the cost of connecting lots of little devices to the network; 5G should make that easier in the long run. Writing about traffic on the downtown loop? Put up a few sensors that can monitor and stream the flow of vehicles 24/7 to figure out where the roadblocks are. Is Little League big in your town? Put up a camera at the local diamond that can livestream games to your readers and automatically generate game stories. Are water board meetings boring 95 percent of the time but highly newsworthy the other 5? Put a camera in the meeting room to stream it and to watch for those rare bursts of importance.
A lot of these ideas rely on AI improvements as much as far better networks — but those will improve in tandem. The more raw data there is to analyze, the more tools will be built to analyze it.
More competition for people’s attention from everything else using 5G. A sad but inevitable outcome for those of us who care about a broadly informed public. At every stage of the Internet’s development, technology that has made it easier to distribute information has brought benefits to news organizations. But it’s brought many more benefits to everyone else. That’s true both for those who previously had little access to publishing — think bloggers and emergent social media successes — and for those who will use those technologies for entertainment purposes. When all you had access to in daily print was a newspaper, the front page was guaranteed to feature news. When all you had access to was your local broadcast TV stations, roughly 1/5 of the available content was news of some sort.
When cable TV came along, the news junkies could watch CNN — but it was also easier to avoid news altogether. Every technological gain from the web or smartphones was also available to game builders, fake news merchants, meme makers, and your racist Uncle Ted. Nothing wrong with entertainment! But it’s worth noting that the near-instantaneous delivery of huge amounts of video and spatial data is much more likely to benefit Hollywood, game makers, and others who will create amazing immersive experiences than it will journalists.