In Praise of Human Editors

Posted by: in Communication Strategy, Public Relations Practice on August 18, 2011

When Spotify, the stream-any-song-you’d-like service, hit the United States last month, I immediately ponied up for a paid subscription at $10 a month. I can now stream almost anything to my mobile phone, and I haven’t turned on my radio since. But that decision puzzled a couple of people, who asked why I would spend the cash rather than just listening to Pandora, which can stream — albeit with less control over specific songs — for free.

The answer, in a word: playlists. I have been creating playlists based on the recommendation of friends as well as the songs that are in heavy rotation at my favorite radio station of all time, WPGU. And I’m getting exposed to all kinds of great, unexpected stuff. With Pandora, the computer-generated playlists, no matter how fine-tuned, don’t bring me anything truly new. Yes, I can set up a Foo Fighters channel, but I’ll never get Allison Krause there.

The night-and-day difference between a WPGU playlist and a Pandora playlist has everything to do with the human DJ spinning tracks. You can’t (yet) replace that sense of “cool” with an algorithm.

But it’s not just music. Late last year, a Facebook friend sent an urgent missive: toxic sludge was fouling the historic Danube River. My friend was aghast, and nearly as upset at the media for not covering the story. Except that the media were covering the story — it was the Facebook community that hadn’t noticed. My hometown paper, a small, Midwestern daily with few ties to Eastern Europe, put the story on the front page. An editor there clearly made a news judgment: while not something that was immediately relevant to her readership, it was important in an objective sense. Score another one for human editors.

I think back to the Danube story when I hear heavy breathing about how, in a Filter Bubble world, prioritization can best be done by algorithms or crowds. And while I don’t want to dismiss the power of those tools (see Aaron Strout’s excellent take on curation last week for an example), it’s clear there remains a role for news (and radio, for that matter) as designed by experts. We’re now nearly 6 months into the New York Times’ grand experiment with its paywall, and it’s a huge — and surprising — success. I can’t help but think that part of that success is the recognition of the value of real-live editors.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go check out what the kids say is hip over at WPGU.

When Spotify, the stream-any-song-you’d-like service, hit the United States last month, I immediately ponied up for a paid subscription at $10 a month. I can now stream almost anything to my mobile phone, and I haven’t turned on my radio since. But that decision puzzled a couple of people, who asked why I would spend the cash rather than just listening to Pandora, which can stream — albeit with less control over specific songs — for free.

 

The answer, in a word: playlists. I have been creating playlists based on the recommendation of friends as well as the songs that are in heavy rotation at my favorite radio station of all time, WPGU. And I’m getting exposed to all kinds of great, unexpected stuff. With Pandora, the computer-generated playlists, no matter how fine-tuned, don’t bring me anything truly new. Yes, I can set up a Foo Fighters channel, but I’ll never get Allison Krause there.

 

The night-and-day difference between a WPGU playlist and a Pandora playlist has everything to do with the human DJ spinning tracks. You can’t (yet) replace that sense of “cool” with an algorithm.

 

But it’s not just music. Late last year, a Facebook friend sent an urgent missive: toxic sludge was fouling the historic Danube River. My friend was aghast, and nearly as upset at the media for not covering the story. Except that the media were covering the story — it was the Facebook community that hadn’t noticed. My hometown paper, a small, Midwestern daily with few ties to Eastern Europe, put the story on the front page. An editor there clearly made a news judgment: while not something that was immediately relevant to her readership, it was important in an objective sense. Score another one for human editors.

 

I think back to the Danube story when I hear heavy breathing about how, in a Filter Bubble world, prioritization can best be done by algorithms or crowds. And while I don’t want to dismiss the power of those tools (see Aaron Strout’s excellent take on curation last week for an example), it’s clear there remains a role for news (and radio, for that matter) as designed by experts. We’re now nearly 6 months into the New York Times’ grand experiment with its paywall, and it’s a huge — and surprising — success. I can’t help but think that part of that success is the recognition of the value of real-live editors.

 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go check out what the kids say is hip over at WPGU.

By: Brian Reid

Brian Reid is a managing director at W2O Group, where he oversees influencer relations. He is a former journalist who believes content really is king.

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3 Responses

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  1. Brian
    Bravo! Yes, technology is everywhere. No it can’t do everything (at least today). The promises of AI have been long overdue and that is a good thing.
    Experience shapes judgment which is the keystone of any decision in an environment where choices abound. Experience is made of a rational and emotional part. When evaluating if something is good or bad, we tap directly into it and the feeling we experience is a key factor in our decision. Shared experience amongst like-minded people will definitely create better recommendations than a fixed logic which can’t tap into our emotional side.
    The emotional part is still quite fuzzy and certainly difficult to built into softare with 0 and 1.
    L

  2. Totally agree, Brian (and laurent). I think it comes down to the importance of a human connection, and why the Turing Test (of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior) has yet to be won – the judges can always tell human from machine. Be it song choice, news article, sentence structure or the application of research data (especially this), human interaction and “gut checks” by experts will remain vital.

  3. Mark Bennett said

    Great post Brian.. without the human touch, you’re outta touch!

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