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The Digital Skeptic: Even Big Data-Driven News Needs People

"If EveryBlock were a product sold to journalists, the buzz we got would've been fantastic, " he said to The Verge back in August. "But it's a product for city residents who may or may not care about the Future Of News."

To Addison's credit, when I got him on the phone he was honest that EveryBlock is a work in progress . Though Holovaty and Addison say EveryBlock's traffic is "orders of magnitude" better than in its early days, when I asked Addison about current sales, his answer was not one investors want to hear.

"We have nothing to disclose," he said. "We are seeing the steps in the right direction. We are developing the roadmap to profitability."

No Big Data algo is required to see the blind alley EveryBlock is stuck in. Just look carefully at PolitiFact. Even with its near-magical tools, what makes PolitiFact work is not technology, but pure old-school human journalism.

"To create our lists of promises, our staffers pored through speech transcripts, TV appearances, position papers and campaign websites," is how the service describes what it does.

That's a pricey, professional human element that EveryBlock makes a point of not having. "We have made the conscious decision to put the responsibility in the user to develop content, rather than develop it ourselves," Addison told me.

More soberingly, even with PolitiFact's huge street cred I get a feeling there are issues with this business. The Knoxville News Sentinel announced this week that it will drop out the PolitiFact network. The editor there, Jack McElroy, said the reason was not strictly that election news is no longer front-page stuff.

"We are dropping because of limited resources," McElroy told me in an email. The time and money it takes to create what PolitiFact requires is steep, he said. "The rulings take a lot of work, and there are monthly fees."

It turns out that even after 15 years of brutal trial and error, the news business is no closer to navigating the vast wasteland between cheap automated digital content and pricey human-created analog stories.