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 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.