Posts about News

Guardian column: Witnesses take over the news

Here’s my Guardian column this week: reaction to witnesses’ growing role in the news in Mumbai.

The last mass-news story was 9/11, packaged from a distance. The 7/7 attacks on London and the 2004 tsunami then brought the perspective of witnesses via their cameras. The Sichuan earthquake and the Mumbai attacks brought the urgency of Twitter. The next news story will be seen live and at eye level. . . . Such will be our new view of news: urgent, live, direct, emotional, personal.

Out of the cacaphony of people sharing what they know – on the ground, in the area, then around the world – comes a greater need to make sense of it all. Thus, I conclude, organizing news will be the most important role of news organizations.

: After sending the column in, I got email from GroundReport’s Rachel Sterne telling us that:

* had a full-length Mumbai attacks story on our homepage before any mainstream western outlet.
* We have published over 70 full-length articles, videos and op-eds from people on the ground there since the start of the crisis.
* GroundReport consistently published updates on terrorist whereabouts and casualty counts hours before mainstream media.
* During the attacks I used Twitter and #mumbai to recruit people on the ground in Mumbai to report, significantly adding to our coverage….

The building block of journalism is no longer the article

The old building block of journalism — the article — is proving to be inadequate in the current onslaught of news. I’ll argue here that the new building block is the topic.

The story was all we had before — it’s what would fit onto a newspaper page or into a broadcast show. But a discrete and serial series of articles over days cannot adequately cover the complex stories going on now nor can they properly inform the public. There’s too much repetition. Too little explanation. The knowledge is not cumulative. Each instance is necessarily shallow. And when more big stories come — as they have lately! — in scarce time and space and with scarce resources, each becomes even shallower. We never catch up, we never get smarter. Articles perpetuate a Ground Hog Day kind of journalism.

Talking this over with some smart folks over the last few days — in one set of conversations about newspapers and online technology and in another conversation with NPR’s David Folkenflik for a story he’ll air shortly — I came to see that we haven’t yet created the proper elemental unit of coverage of stories like these.

Six years ago, in an insightful essay, Blogger cocreator Meg Hourihan wrote that the elemental unit of online media was no longer the publication or section or page or story but the post. I think that’s right: countless grains of information, thought, or opinion, each with its own permanent link so it can become connected to something larger — carbon atoms adding up to earth.

But that alone won’t work as an organizing principle for informing a world. It is the underlying base from which we have to start. But we have to add more value atop that shifting beach.

We have many tools to work with now, first and foremost the link. The link can take us to more or less background, depending on how much each of us needs, and to original source material and to many perspectives.

The link becomes more important than the brand in news. I said to Folkenflik last night that I never would have thought to go to This American Life as a brand to find the best explanation of the credit crisis, but I did. (Its reporters are working furiously on a sequel for this week’s show.) Lots of people discovered that report and spread the word around — with the link. The link changes everything.

I think the new building block of journalism needs to be the topic. I don’t mean that in the context of news site topic pages, which are just catalogues of links built to kiss up to Google SEO. Those are merely collections of articles, and articles are inadequate.

Instead, I want a page, a site, a thing that is created, curated, edited, and discussed. It’s a blog that treats a topic as an ongoing and cumulative process of learning, digging, correcting, asking, answering. It’s also a wiki that keeps a snapshot of the latest knowledge and background. It’s an aggregator that provides annotated links to experts, coverage, opinion, perspective, source material. It’s a discussion that doesn’t just blather but that tries to accomplish something (an extension of an article like this one that asks what options there are to bailout a bailout). It’s collaborative and distributed and open but organized.

Think of it as being inside a beat reporter’s head, while also sitting at a table with all the experts who inform that reporter, as everyone there can hear and answer questions asked from the rest of the room — and in front of them all are links to more and ever-better information and understanding.

This is the way to cover stories and life.

It’ s not an article, a story, a section, a bureau, a paper, a show. We have to use the new tools we have at hand to create new structures for covering news and informing each other. As I said in the post below, old structures are crumbling and new structures will be built in their place. We need to create that something new now.

What do we call it? I don’t know. The topic table. The beat bliki (ouch). The news brain. We’ll know what to call it when we see it.

: LATER: See Steve Yelvington on community memory and what he’s building.

Here’s Folkenflik’s story.

Losing control of media

NBC News says they will not make the videos from the Virginia mass murderer fully public and this morning on Today, Matt Lauer promised that they would not constantly loop them on the air. NBC News President Steve Capus just said on the air that “it’s so twisted” and “there’s no way to watch it without being extremely disturbed.” There’s a debate going on in blogs about whether the tapes should be released online. Dave Winer and Doc Searls say that the video should be released: “It’s 2007,” says Dave, “and it’s a decentralized world. We should all get a chance to see what’s on those videos.” But Micah Sifry says the father in him doesn’t want his kids discovering this on the internet.

As a father, I understand Micah’s wish. But that horse is out of that barn. This is related to yesterday’s discussion about news coming from witnesses, live, to the internet without the opportunity to filter it.

The essential infrastructure of news and media has changed forever: There is no control point anymore. When anyone and everyone — witnesses, criminals, victims, commenters, officials, and journalists — can publish and broadcast as events happen, there is no longer any guarantee that news and society itself can be filtered, packaged, edited, sanitized, polished, secured.

Like it or not, that’s the way it is. But before we start wringing our hands over the unique, one-in-a-billion exception to all rules — the mass murderer with a camera — let’s make sure we remember that this openness is a great and good change. It enables us all have a voice and to hear new voices.

And let’s not presume that we all need NBC or anyone to protect us from life as it is. But we do need to make sure to educate our children to be media-wise in a new media world. They will need to judge who the bad people are in life just as they will online. They need to understand that media is no longer a pasteurized and packaged version of life but life itself, witih all its benefits and dangers.

And though I don’t want to watch the murderer’s videos myself, I do think there may be a benefit to these tapes being out there: The guy was clearly insane and dangerous and what’s most shocking about this story is that people around him knew it and tried to both get him help and stop him from doing something dangerous and yet our laws even prevented his parents from being notified because of overzealous laws governing privacy. Perhaps this will motivate us to change those laws and our attitude about insanity and its dangers. That may be an advantage of the public life.

This is not an easy transition. It challenges so many assumptions we have about a controlled media. Some of us celebrate the loss of control but others fear that loss.

Davos07: Gates, Wolfowitz, and the world

Next session is on scaling innovation in foreign aid with Bill Gates, Paul Wolfowitz, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman president elected in Africa, Bill Easterly ex of the World Bank, and Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek, as moderator.

Gates says that the amount spent on invested in foreign aid over the last n years is equivalent to the amount invested by venture capital: about $500 billion. He talks about aid and charity from the perspective of investment. He says that that saved about 100 million lives and that works out to $23,000 per life. Is that a lot? We spend a lot more to save lives in the West, he says. He also says that revolutions save lives.

Wolfowitz says the VC model works in some areas but not others. He says a small percentage of that U.S. aid went to Mobutu in Zaire and did more than just failed as an investment; it destroyed the country. But education is an example of strong investment; he points to South Korea. He also says the best-practices of good use of aid is consistent with the VC model. Wolfowitz says there is good news in Africa that doesn’t make news: a third of countries with a third of the population growing economically at 4 percent a year, a rate Europe would envy. Zakaria adds that that’s because in part of of high commodity prices.

Easterly says that when VC companies screw up, they die. Aid agencies don’t die. He goes on to criticize aid effort.

Gates gives a wonderfully passionate screed against that, arguing that it is wrong to judge aid based on GDP. Saving lives may not raise GDP but Gates says that saving lives in itself is of value. Asked about a Foreign Affairs story that warned of attention going heavily to sexy diseases, Gates says he is delighted that these diseases have become sexy.

National crocodile tears

I’m sorry, but it’s absolutely ridiculous that financial markets and government services are being shut down in observance of Gerald Ford’s funeral. What, our mailmen and stockbrokers and garbagemen are all off crying over Ford? It’s a waste.

All Iraq, all the time

Eason Jordan, former president of CNN, has opened the curtains on his new venture, IraqSlogger. His description:

What’s the goal of IraqSlogger?
To be the world’s premier Iraq-focused information source. To provide original, exclusive reporting and analysis as well as links to, and critiques of, third party reporting and commentary. To be engaging, distinctive, candid. To provide stories and perspectives you cannot find elsewhere. On rare occasion, we’ll even provide humor. . . .

Who produces IraqSlogger?
The founding team includes Eason Jordan, Robert Young Pelton, Nir Rosen, Zeyad, Amer Mohsen, Anna Shen, and Christina Davidson. Our contributors include 50 Iraq-based correspondents, experts, and tipsters; and reporters and Iraq analysts in the U.S. and elsewhere.

It’s already an impressive resource. One might wonder how many people want more news about Iraq but right now, we need it.

Giving the President the thumb

BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson uses his Blackberry to liveblog a presidential press conference — about getting the presidential evil eye there — and Robin Hamman gives the backstory.

Reason No. 479 not to fly

Radioactive jets.

Blogging BBC exec Richard Sambrook finds himself on one of them.