Thursday, 14 January 2010

We are all journalists now – so we need a new definition of news

Haiti shows us the modern face of journalism. When something big happens, which affects a lot of people, or about which many not directly affected have a high level of interest, the old model of professional journalism collapses.

With Haiti as with other major disasters, as well as the Iranian uprisings and the Mumbai terror attack, the resources of traditional professional journalism cannot cope. Often they can’t get access.

Yet the old media conglomerates still strive to cover such stories in the old top-down way that they always did. Last night the BBC’s correspondent was bundled onto the 10 O’Clock News a bare 10 minutes after his plane had landed. All he could tell the millions watching was what a few airport workers had told him in that time, and that as his plane had arrived over an area of low-rise buildings he hadn’t really seen any devastation.

Clearly the old cry: have we got a man there yet? Is still heard in the world’s newsrooms.

Now you might argue that the BBC, along with every other news organisation, made strenuous efforts to get material from on the ground, and was very happy to take that from anyone with a mobile phone. You’d be right, but that doesn’t alter the fact that really major stories are actually now covered by those involved in them. The citizens are the reporters. The professional journalists are the curators of that material: they are editors, not reporters. Or at least, they should be.

Because we (almost all) have a multimedia broadcasting device in our pocket, we are all journalists now. I want to hear the story from those involved in it, not some bloke who’s just landed. No wonder the general view of journalists is that they over-simplify, misunderstand and distort.

But of course all those millions with camera phones, Twitter and Facebook accounts aren’t all trained in reporting. So while we all have the technical power to report, only the chosen few have the journalistic skills to do it well, and hence effectively. Often that doesn’t matter. As any journalist will tell you, a big story tells/writes itself.

But what this also suggests to me is that, to be a fully enfranchised citizen in this new age of omnipresent broadcasting capability, a person needs to know how to be a reporter. Such skills should be taught in school alongside the basics of maths and English.

I’m not talking about abstract media studies, but rather the solid basics of what makes a news story and how to tell it, in words, sounds and pictures.  That is now just as vital as being able to structure and write an essay.

Increasingly, any citizen who can’t engage with the internet and social media risks powerlessness and disenfranchisement.

More and more, a consumer needs access to social media to get a decent level of service.

Contrast the general ineffectiveness and frustration of spending hours on the phone to a call centre with the ease of posting a tweet about your problem. Very often, the latter works, the former doesn’t.

When my broadband packed up I spent 21/2 fruitless hours on a bad phone line to India, which failed to resolve the problem. My annoyed tweet got me an immediate call from customer care, who fixed it.

When my car was vandalised our community copper was unavailable. We didn’t hear from him until a week later. Yet my tweet to a chief inspector of another force got an immediate response with solid advice of what I should do.

Pretty soon the best way to get your elected representative to take notice of you will be through social media. So anyone who doesn’t have access to it, or can’t express themselves effectively through it, will be powerless.

The impact of all this on professional journalists and how they are trained is, or ought to be, seismic.

The big stories have always been the ones that involve a lot of people. Now, the participants are the reporters too.

The snow in the UK is being covered largely by those affected. Professional journalists are one step removed, they are the curators of that material.

When the floods in the north of England devastated parts of the Lake District I looked in vain for really comprehensive coverage on mainstream media that would satisfy my particular interest. I got plenty of reporters doing pieces to camera in a swamped high street. Only on social media did I get the wealth of reporting within which I could find what I wanted.

I was interested in a particular village and valley. I found a blog post from the owner of a bed and breakfast  who had driven right across the region, taking photographs of  the devastation all along the way, and using a simple piece of free software to geotag them to a map. With this and some other material pertinent to my particular interest, I was able to create my own personalised news stream on my Facebook page.

The material was there on social media to satisfy almost any observer’s particular interest in a very big story, but the established media organisations failed to become the gateway to it.

But what about smaller stories? Not the earthquakes and revolutions, but the stories that might be seen as the bread-and-butter of local news coverage?

Jeff Jarvis suggests that we need to do no less than re-think what news is and how it is reported.

Responding to a Pew report that said 95 per cent of original reporting still comes from newspapers he blogged that the study [the emphases are mine]: “defines news as news has been defined. We should be rethinking our definition of what is news - for many people, it’s not stories about juvenile justice, one of Pew’s subjects - and how it should be covered - not necessarily in articles - and how it is spread - that is the role of blogs and Twitter - and not be stuck in old measurements.

He goes on: “We are also just beginning to see experimentation with the form of news, moving past the articles the study measures. News is becoming more of a process than a product; it is being disseminated in new ways thanks to search and social and algorithmic links. News is changing.

“We must keep mind that we are at the dawn, the very dawn of the new news ecosystem.”

What the economics of that new ecosystem might be is still very hazy. But what we do know is that this new model will strongly feature the citizen-as-journalist, and hence how to do good journalism must be an essential ingredient of a citizen’s education.

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