Can AI eliminate news reporting’s inherent bias? The CEO of Knowhere thinks so.
By Audra Heinrichs.
Nathaniel Barling was born and bred in a news-centric household. His great-grandfather did time at the Daily Mail, a great-uncle wrote for The Guardian, and his father, Kurt Barling, was a former BBC correspondent recognized as one of the network’s longest-serving minority journalists. While Barling’s publishing pedigree is certainly at the heart of his own media startup, Knowhere, something unique to family tradition lies at the helm: artificial intelligence.
Co-founded by Barling and launched in 2018, the Silicon Valley-based venture seeks to resuscitate the golden era of journalism. In Barling’s mind, that era began to lose its glimmer sometime after the birth of the digital age, when newspapers across the globe, especially in the U.S., began laying off journalists en masse, sparking – and encouraging – an era in which quickfire content propagated by outlets like BuzzFeed held consumers in a headlock. However, the young, impassioned CEO and his team believe artificial intelligence is just the anecdote for the dulling industry.
Knowhere functions like other high-quality news outlets. It produces fact-based reporting, the goal of which is to be devoid of partiality or partisanship. However, because Barling understands that bias is inherent, often even unconscious, machine-learning technology built by Knowhere engineers is used to collate news from a breadth of sources—from left-leaning to right-leaning and everything in between—aiding in-house reporters with rewriting the stories readers are most interested in, furthering the reporting without bias.
“The thing that we’ve found they [machine learning systems] enable us to do in a fashion no one else has been able to for last generation of the news business, is report to people on the ground in their hometowns, about the things that truly impact their lives—the schools their kids go to, the policy that county governments implement, the crises that happen in their local neighborhoods, the things that really speak to their every day.”
While its desire to use AI for good may be its most highly-publicized attribute, what’s most commendable about Knowhere is its passion for creating journalism jobs in communities Barling refers to as, “the forgotten America,” otherwise described as, “The places newspapers in the country no longer have the capacity or desire to reach.” For instance, the Treasure Coast on the Atlantic coast of Florida.
Last year, Knowhere toyed with the idea of establishing a series of local bureaus in addition to maintaining its national office on the West Coast. But first, Barling and co. did their research. “We actually looked at every single county in America: the demographics, the population dynamics, the age cohorts of the population, the socioeconomic background and the population of registered voters, how those communities have voted in elections over the last 20-25 years, and perhaps most importantly, the state of news coverage in those communities,” Barling explains. “The final criteria that really drove us was after a whole bunch of demand tests, we ran some experimental campaigns across social media to see which areas of the country were most excited at the prospect of a new local news organization.”
In the end, it was the Treasure Coast, a stretch of the state that’s recently seen a considerable decrease in a local newspaper presence, that would outperform all the rest.
Before breaking ground, Barling also looked critically at the number of journalists in the region and how many had been affected by the shuttering of local outlets. In short: it was a lot. So Knowhere reached out. Today, just seven months after opening, Knowhere boasts nearly 25,000 Treasure Coast subscribers and projects 50,000 by its second year, effectively making it the largest circulation newspaper in Treasure Coast history.
Knowhere plans to keep expanding to suburbs and small, rural towns that surround places like Kansas City and St. Louis. “We really believe that the model we built out here and the technology that supports it is something that can enable us to go into almost any community in America and report on the most important stories of the day,” says Barling.
But despite AI’s positive impact on Knowhere newsrooms, machine learning technologies invite skepticism. Even Barling himself is suspicious as to where it belongs: “If an organization out there wanted to establish exactly the viewpoint of their reader and try to author the story so they were as likely to click on it as possible, rather than to be as informed as possible, that technology exists today, to be able to do that. So, I think it’s important to think about who has this technology and how are they using it. Organizations need to be upfront about the role these technologies are playing in the newsroom.”
Perhaps the real question is whether or not American readers actually want to part ways with their maintained, man-made bias for straight news aided by machine. What’s become of U.S. politics in the last four years is more than enough to make a case for human tendency to remain comfortable in one’s long-held credos. But Barling is optimistic.
“For a long time, we were concerned as to whether we were delivering something that people really want. But the fact that 40% of our national readers read us every day and locally, 50% of our subscribers read us every day, tells me that actually, the pendulum has started swinging back in the other direction. And I think in the long run, the pendulum always swings in that direction. It always swings toward information that helps people lead a better, more tolerant, more constructive, more prosperous life,” he says. “Because otherwise you end up in a state of war, and in the long run, that’s not where anybody wants to be.”
Photo courtesy of Knowhere News.