Guardian column: News via links

Here’s my Guardian column this week, on the new architecture of news via links:

The fundamental architecture of news has shifted – again. We’ve already seen that news organisations’ exclusive hold on distribution and content creation has dissolved. But now it appears that their pre-eminence as news gatherers is also challenged, especially during breaking news events. So during big news stories, what is the role of the journalist now? To link, it seems.

There has been no better illustration of this shift than the Virginia Tech shootings, in which witness-reporters on campus used their available tools – blogging, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, mobile phones, wi-fi – to tell their stories as they occurred.

In most cases, the students’ intended audience was not the world but instead their families and friends, who did not come to them with journalistic expectations of completeness, verification, and identity. Their audiences knew them, and the news they sought was simply, “I’m OK, Dad.” Yet because the media had not yet sent their flocks of news vultures to Virginia, they depended on these witness-reporters to give us their accounts and their colour. As was discussed in last week’s MediaGuardian, the students resisted the crush of reporters coming to vet their tales and claim exclusive bits of life and death. Their stories were already there for all to see, with little need for journalists. What was big media to do, then? Link.

But the students were not the only ones who were media-savvy. So was the murderer. Many decried NBC’s decision to air his “multimedia manifesto,” as the network’s anchor called it. But I disagree. NBC should have revealed the worst of his rants to inform a needed debate about America’s laws on insanity, privacy and guns, laws that allowed this deranged man to be at large. It is not journalism’s job to be safe and popular but instead to tell us uncomfortable truths. Besides, the murderer’s videos could just as easily have been posted to YouTube or his blog; NBC was their gatekeeper only by chance. The next time, a network won’t be there to protect us from ugliness, to sanitise the world for our protection. And is that journalism’s job, anyway, when reality is only a link away?

I am also struck by the inevitability that, come the next major event, the news we see from witness-reporters will be delivered from the scene, live. The technology exists today. You can broadcast live on the internet via UStream.com. It’s even possible to broadcast live from a mobile phone. So what happens when a dozen witnesses stream reports over the internet as the news occurs? What does big media do when there is no time to vet and verify? They’ll have to issue caveats. And link.

In the midst of the Virginia Tech story, I was at the National Association of Broadcasters’ convention in Las Vegas, where two talented video bloggers – Zadi Diaz, of JetSet, and Amanda Congdon, ex of Rocketboom – both refused the title “journalist” because of the baggage it brings, the expectations and demands. They don’t want to be on that side of the gate. They insisted – not unlike the Virginia Tech witness-reporters – that they are merely doing their own thing. They just want to be linked.

Now let me turn to one of the best examples of original reporting in the US recently: the Washington Post’s exposé of the mistreatment of Iraq veterans at an Army hospital in Washington. The New York Times was criticised for not matching that story sooner, but at another conference, I argued – to nodding heads from people at both papers – that on the web, the Times was better off linking to the Post and saving its reporting resources to uncover its own critical stories. The Times had a journalistic obligation to send traffic and support to the Post, to journalism at its source. I’ve similarly argued that newspapers should stop wasting resources covering what everybody else covers just to feed their institutional ego under their own bylines. They should stand out not by sending the 100th correspondent to a news event that witnesses are covering anyway but by doing what journalists should do best: reporting. This led me to issue a new rule for journalism: do what you do best. Link to the rest.

And that is how journalism will surely expand into new areas of coverage – hyperlocal, niches, specialities: News organisations can no longer afford to own, employ, and control – to vet, verify, and sanitise – everything that happens. The only way they can expand is to work cooperatively with witness-reporters, community members, experts, people who publish on their own, finding and sending readers to the best and most reliable among them. How? Via the link.

  • http://badideaindeed.wordpress.com Philippe

    I have been fired once in my 15 years carreer. I’m working in the web for 8 years. 18 months ago, I was headhunted by a press agency (the customers were for 95% traditional medias) as a sales and marketing manager. In a very conservative environment, I was supposed to save them from the web competition. I proposed crowdsourcing (to create photobanks) and the development of an online video product enriched by metadata (for automatic aggregation with other formats) and audio interviews syndication (also with metadata) and blogs syndication.

    They regarded that as not enough (I can agree. I couldn’t find a suitable model for an agency who hadn’t a direct link to the public) and the journalists corporation was very hostile.

    So, I agree with you. Journalism will have to reinvent itself and I love the line “Do what you do best. Link to the rest”.

  • http://onlinejournalismblog.wordpress.com Paul Bradshaw

    I hope you’re right, but the lack of links on newspaper websites – and I’m guessing the lack of a facility to include related links within their content management systems – suggests the very basic principle of linking is far from integral to UK online journalism. I’ve ranted about this more specifically at http://onlinejournalismblog.wordpress.com/2007/05/01/why-cant-newspapers-get-linking-right/

  • http://www.andydickinson.net Andy Dickinson

    Jeff

    What do you see as the difference between vet and varify as things the MSM can no longer count on doing and ‘finding and sending readers to the best and most reliable among them’, something they should?

    Is it a publishing thing? Vet, verify and re-publish (sanitise?) Vs Check it and link to it. Or is it a mindset thing?

    Or am I missing the point :)

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  • shawnpetriw

    I think ustream.com should read ustream.tv.

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  • http://healingiraq.blogspot.com Zeyad

    Outstanding column, Jeff. You should teach us this stuff at school. Make up more new rules instead of the dusty ones we are being taught.

    • http://www.blippitt.com Blippitt

      Agreed. This stuff is a lot more entertaining than the mindless drivel being force fed to students these days.

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