Beatblogging

For reasons below and with apologies, I’m late linking to Jay Rosen’s next project, BeatBlogging.

As Jay said, this may not look new because reporters have always been surrounded by networks of experts, people who — pace Dan Gillmor — know more than they do.

But those experts have not been linked and their expertise has not been open. The reporter was a gatekeeper before — only the expertise he chose would make it to the public in print. But now the role of the reporter can and should be different: as a moderator, vetter, enabler, encourager.

So I like to think of this as turning reporting inside-out: Before, the reporter put himself at the center, because it was through him that reporting flowed to the press and public. Now there can be a network of people who report and advise and the reporter should be asking himself what he can do to help them do that better; the reporter stands not at the center but at the edge, which reporters must learn is where the action really is.

So what should that entail? A reporter should make connections: Well, expert A, you say this but expert B says that, why don’t you read each others’ blog posts and push your ideas toward consensus or clear disagreement? Or expert B needs a fact that expert A might have and the reporter makes that connection. And if expert A doesn’t have it, she can extend the network to someone new who does: expert C joins the growing network. And if they’re in a network, experts A, B, and C don’t need the reporter to accomplish this; they can ask and assign each other. Or the reporter gets his network to come together to collaborate not just on a news story but on resources: a wiki history or how-to. The experts certainly should no longer wait until they are asked to be heard; they can and should be publishing and sharing all the time and the reporter can act as an editor, curating that which will be of interest to his public. That public should, in turn, assign the network work: Our public wants to know this, will you guys go find out for us? In a newsroom as classroom, I also imagine that these networks are educational: the experts share knowledge with each other and with the reporter and with the public; the journalists share the tricks of their trade with the network to help them gather and share news and information.

At the end of the day, the definition of the role of the journalist shifts and we can’t be sure where it will end up. That’s why beatblogging is a valuable learning experience.

Last spring, Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, sat down and drew one of his famous charts for me: a funnel through which news flowed. The journalist stood at the narrow bottom, the sphincter (my word) controlling the flow. But Alan envisioned moving the journalist up to the wider top where the job changed, encouraging more information — and the right information — to flow into the funnel and to loop around and gather more information in turn (additions, corrections, etc.) in a continuous cycle. That’s what beatblogging is about: figuring out where the reporter stands and what he does.

But here’s the dangerous question: What if the reporter does such a good job organizing such a good network that it runs on its own, gathering and sharing news and information and answering questions that need to be answered, so that the reporter isn’t needed anymore? Could happen, no? But I don’t think it will — if reporters learn to redefine themselves. Indeed, I think that reporters can make themselves even more valuable to wider publics and networks. The key verb in this paragraph is “organize.” In the old definition, at the bottom of that funnel, the verb was “control:” the reporter controlled access to the public and to news judgment and to news events and to the experts. But the internet removes those choke points. And though there are self-organizing systems on the internet, most of them are less self-organized than they look; that was one of Jay’s first lessons when he researched Assignment Zero: open-source projects have wranglers, organizers. The network may not find each other without the organizer; it may not identify the people who really know what they’re talking about; it may not make connections between questions and answers; it may not have someone devoted and paid to getting access and finding facts as a reporter should. The more independently these networks can operate, though, the more efficiently they can run, and the more of them we can have gathering more news and information. But they need organizers. And that means the key skill of the journalist shifts to organization.

I return to the wisdom of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg when he advised media moguls at Davos not to think that they could create communities but to instead realize that these communities already exist and so they should be asking what they can contribute to help them do what they already do better. Mark’s prescription: give them elegant organization. When you think about it, that has always been the mission of journalism: organizing information so communities can organize their activities. Now we have new and better means to do that. So I think beatblogging can get journalism back to its essential mission, discarding the distractions brought on by the means of production and distribution to which the journalists once had exclusive access. The role of the journalist becomes clearer, even purer: They organize information for communities and communities of information.

And that is an active verb. Curating is part of the role and that’s almost passive: finding and gathering and presenting the best of what people are already doing. That’s what Glam and ScienceBlogs do. But in the beatblogging sense, organizing also means mobilizing; it’s more active: Hey, network, let’s come together and go out and gather the information to answer this question together. That’s the next step in a network. So take Glam or ScienceBlogs or the law network in the post immediately below or any beatblogging network and imagine that the reporter-as-organizer can dispatch experts to advance a story. That’s powerful. That’s networked journalism.

: I’m proud that Jay put together part of his network of networks at the Networked Journalism Conference.

  • http://www.digidave.org David Cohn

    I’m also happy that Jay was able to get together this coalition of the daring at the Networked Journalism Summit.

    Also proud to be a part of it. It’s not that this is anything “new.” But we hope it will be a methodical approach – really trying to figure out how this all works.

    Funn you say “What if the reporter does such a good job organizing such a good network that it runs on its own….so that the reporter isn’t needed anymore? Could happen, no? But I don’t think it will — if reporters learn to redefine themselves.”

    I had that exact conversation last night. There seems to be this fear that if the reporter isn’t out on the street “reporting,” then they have nothing to do. What we need to remember is that this is a changing job description. Community management is a part of web 2.0 — and it’s slowly becoming a part of journalism.

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  • http://www.60secondscience.com Christopher

    I’m not sure that your metaphor really applies to Glam and Scienceblogs. In as much as there is any curating going on there, it’s done primarily by the bloggers themselves. Which would make them reporters, right?

    The only real curators out there are Slashdot, BoingBoing, etc. Which makes Mark and Xeni and Cmdr. Taco the curators there – the sphincters of large funnels of user suggestions.

    I’m not sure anyone’s yet put together what you’re describing. In fact, I’m not convinced that the old model is so different from the new one, except that now the market has fragmented so thoroughly that I no longer have to rely on a few thousand journalist / sphincters to get my information — I can rely on tens of thousands of them or more, each catering to the narrowest slivers of my particular spectrum of interests.

  • http://www.60secondscience.com Christopher

    Which, I would add, rather cynically, means that as the number of citizen-reporters balloons, the number of professional reporters will diminish.

    Scienceblogs is run by maybe 1.5 “journalists” – the other 60+ folk, the bloggers, are folks who blog there as a hobby or in support of their other projects… and I can virtually guarantee none are making a living wage from the effort.

  • Andy Freeman

    Journalism today works on the premise that journalist skills are primary. Are they in beatblogging, or are they secondary?

    > A reporter should make connections: Well, expert A, you say this but expert B says that, why don’t you read each others’ blog posts and push your ideas toward consensus or clear disagreement? Or expert B needs a fact that expert A might have and the reporter makes that connection.

    What are the odds that an outsider knows about A and B but A and B don’t know about each other? (Hint – low.)

    An expert, by definition, knows more of what’s relevant in a given field than outsiders.

    > When you think about it, that has always been the mission of journalism: organizing information so communities can organize their activities.

    Bollocks.

  • http://www.knackeredhack.com knackeredhack

    I agree with Christopher. As of now, there is a proliferation of journalism going on by people who have information and the ability and time to communicate it, and no barrier to publish. Pareto distributions will create new winners, and that won’t always depend strictly on merit. How those winners choose to spend their cashflows might well determine what sorts of jobs exist for people with narrow journalism skills.

    It’s a process of creative destruction and at the moment it favours those who can combine hard science/tech skills and can connect with audiences. I do have a hard time seeing the average journalist arbitrating specialist conversations that are already taking place anyway.

    There is perhaps some higher polymath style function that is needed in a more complex society, but I doubt journalism schools are preparing their students for such roles. All of this, as usual, ignores the cinderella profession of trade journalism, which I’m assuming is in rude health happily helping drive the economy forward.

  • http://dcblogs.com O-Shift

    The use of the word “sphincters” to describe news media/journalist belies contempt. I get the sense that the only way you can effectively argue for a new paradigm is to belittle and marginalize reporters. It’s a dehumanizing propaganda you are selling.

    In your world, a reporter is an informed grocery clerk, telling readers what aisle they can go do to check out the chicken special: a “moderator, vetter, enabler, encourager.”

    But I can see your point about networks, informed networks, which have developed the practiced skills and tools needed to effectively pull out information from primary sources, or as we use to call it news gathering. I just don’t buy it.

    A journalist is a disruptive agent. They don’t buy into networks. Most barely buy into their employer. That’s a character trait that was in place before he/she took their first job.

    I think that’s what beginning to trouble me about the direction of your analysis. It supposes that new systems emerging will get at the old problems in a better way. Where have I read this before — this belief that a new man emerges from new systems?

    In the big picture truth the journalists is like the artist, motivated by a need to explore mystery and emerge with a story. Only a few in our time will ever produce that essential truth, but whoever does it will be do so because of their inner life and not because of their networked one. Your analysis doesn’t grasp any of this.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    O-shift,
    I think you raise interesting points, which I hope to address later. But I’ll take a moment now to make clear that there’s nothing wrong with the word “sphincter.” You have them in your stomach, too. Surely we can make mature use of the language without getting into schoolyard interpretations of “dehumanizing propaganda.” Come now.
    More later.

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  • http://www.tyndallreport.com Andrew Tyndall

    Jarvis —

    Your vision of journalism seems to share a similar blind spot to Rosen’s: see the comments in his post My Coordinates for a Successful News Site.

    In the world before the Internet, the job of journalism was encumbered by the task of delivering all sorts of non-news-related material just because reporters happened to be working in a medium that was efficient at disseminating that information. Newspapers contain the comics and the baseball box scores and stock market closing prices. Local TV news includes traffic data and weather forecasts. Network morning TV news includes fashion shows, cooking demonstrations and rock concerts. Political TV news can consist of the mere carriage of an event — a Presidential press conference, a Congressional hearing, a candidates’ debate — documenting a proceeding rather than reporting on it.

    The expanded media universe that the Internet offers allows journalists to shuck off that extraneous baggage and to concentrate on their core job: to find what is newsworthy, informing citizens of developments and controversies in their community, in the body politic, and in the world at large, so they need not act like civic illiterates.

    The key term here is news. Journalists have a specialized way of looking at the world. It involves isolating, selecting and emphasizing those aspects of daily life that are unusual, controversial, innovative, counterintuitive, salient; events that change the status quo or require the status quo to change in response. There are plenty of other people examining the real world and producing non-fictional information — librarians, encyclopedians, essayists, commentators, academics, polemicists, activists — whose priority is not to find the newsworthy elements in the day’s events and create headlinegrabbing narratives out of them.

    To me, BuzzMachine’s speculations on Beatblogging refer to the entire universe of producing non-fiction information — not to what journalists should do. Using BuzzMachine’s examples, I fail to see why it is the special job of journalists to act as as intermediary between experts, or to facilitate wiki-histories, or to educate, or to gather information. In fact, all of those roles are probably better accomplished by those who are not looking for what is newsworthy — because emphasizing the newsworthy over the mundane is, inevitably, a distorting process.

    To repeat myself, this is how I commented on Rosen’s thread: “The current phase of fragmentation and atomization of the media offers an opportunity to shuck off the baggage of non-news, safe in the knowledge that those important functions are being taken care of elsewhere. Thus journalists can concentrate on the task at hand.” The same criticism applies to the idea of Beatblogging.

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