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.