Let’s fire a few missiles at politically correct ideas such as “Digital media makes all of us journalists”, “citizens will soon displace professional reporters”, and so on. That’s nonsense (I have more explicit words in mind). Does it means public input in news should be kept at bay? Certainly not. Quite the contrary, actually. Newsrooms have a challenge on their hands, they need to get better at handling such input.
First, would you trust a citizen neurosurgeon to remove your kid’s neuroblastoma? No, you wouldn’t. You would not trust a citizen dentist either for your cavities. Or even a people’s car repairman. Then, for information, why in hell would we accept practices we wouldn’t even contemplate for our health (OK, big issue), or for our washing machine?
Fact is, with the advent of digital media, the very notion of rigor and accuracy has become more… fuzzy, more analog. As I said here many times, we are now facing three types of news: the Commodity one (everyone gets the same account of the oil spill in Louisiana or the deadly unrest in Thailand); Mashup news (the more it buzzes, the better it works); and the Quality Niche, that tries to defend its standards. The first two are expanding and the third is getting to look like a Zant currant, (Raisin sec in French): good, tasty, but tiny and dry. And produced in small quantities.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me a remarkable piece about fact checking at the New Yorker. In a loving and witty rendition, the author, John McPhee, details how an army of minutiae-obsessed researchers will spend days to check the smallest assertions in order to remove even the palest shadow of doubt. (I’m linking to the PDF file, hoping Condé Nast’s legal department will forgive this copyright infringement in view of my heartfelt homage; this article really deserves to be dissected in journalism schools).
A few years back, this colleague showed me a mail exchange he had with a sub-editor at a major US daily about a long feature story of his. Its original submission triggered a long email with dozens of questions about every aspect of the story: “Who says this? Could you add a source of this data? Isn’t there a contradiction between this figure and the other in paragraph six? Can you be more specific on this and that? It went on an on. The story was actually seen as a good one; the painstaking editing, checking and challenging process was merely standard procedure.
Who has the luxury of applying such treatment to news material, nowadays? No one, almost. Only some “Zant currant” news organizations are still holding firm on such a practice. Which leads us to my point: journalism is a profession; it comes with standards, techniques, and a certain level of demand, from the author and his/her editors.
These notions collide with the new information chain: Algorithm => Search => Filtering => Aggregation => Mashup => Social Feedback (i.e.: commenting, sharing, tweeting, blogging…).
We’ve been through the hardcore part (fact-based reporting, checking, sourcing, editing). Now, let’s sort out the new jargon.
Algorithm: it has become the main underlying engine for digital information consumption. Think about Google News traffic: 3.7 billion people exposed per week, according to GeographicalMedia . For many news sites, GN has fostered a dope-like addiction, with a 10% or more dependency level. New York University Professor Clay Shirky has theorized the “Algorithmic Authority“, one that leads to the shift from individual to collective expertise, sometimes self-organized through a Wikipedia-like structure.
Search, Aggregation and Filtering are just by-products of the algorithmic engine; in the better cases, they are supplemented by a small amount of human editing. See excellent examples such as Techmeme or Mediagazer; they combine a strong home-brewed algorithm with a thin layer of human intervention, hence the term of “Aggrefilter” coined by our friend Dan Farber.
In this context, Blogs range from the best to the worst. Professional blogs – either independent or hosted by traditional medias – can be the most advanced form of written journalism. Quite often, blogs produced by good journalists are as insightful as standard stories, but way more fun to read. (In France, I do know editors who wish their writers were as witty in the paper as they are on their blogs). Good bloggers sometimes border on columnists. Their work is solid, precise and, sometimes, edited; they take time to write their pieces and it shows.
At the other end of the spectrum, blogs can be utterly superficial, lacking precise facts, or agenda-driven and written with a shovel. Unfortunately, both kinds of blogs are sometimes found under the same roof. In many news organizations, big and small, instead of being considered as a more modern form of journalism, the “blog” name tag is a synonym for lower expectations.
The same kind of carelessness goes for comments. I do believe that opening news content to public feedback is a good thing. At its very core, journalism begs for argument; pundits need detractors. But most online editors satisfy themselves by opening the floodgate of comments, without a strategy, or even the slightest attention to content. As a result, everybody loses: the writer who sees painstaking work defaced by shouts; and the publication for allowing substandard, unmoderated feedback. Participation without relevancy is pointless. Unfortunately, in most news sites – including big ones, very little thought seems to have been given to raising the level of public contributions.
This leads us to the oxymoronic notion of citizen journalism. Using public contributions to compensate for the absence of a reporter on the scene is nothing new. For decades, finding pictures taken by witnesses (sometimes paying for such) has been part of the job. Today, Twitter has replaced the checkbook. In many instances, Twitter has proven extraordinary precious and efficient. But, soon, the spontaneous stream of accounts has to be supplemented by professional editing and checking. This is the kind of powerful combination that made the coverage of civil unrests in Tibet or Iran so compelling.
Last March, professor George Brock, head of journalism at the City University of London, gave an absolute must-read lecture on the evolution of journalism titled Is “news” over? (see video and text). Here is what he said about readers input:
This is a competition for trust between two different forms of collective intelligence. This argument is not being openly and clearly mapped by those who run news media. Perhaps understandably, no editor wanting to encourage the highest level of participation online wants to underline that the suggestions, tweets, tips and facts flowing in from this rich new sources are being filtered in a traditional way.
But the facts of news consumption on the web tell us clearly that filtering is exactly what people tend to prefer when they have the choice. Filtering used in the old days to be known as “editing”. If it’s done right, it should be for the benefit and protection of the viewer or reader. It should create trust.
These distinctions are essential to the preservation of quality journalism. Many wondered why the Yahoos, Googles, Microsofts, where unable to setup news organizations despite their incommensurable wealth (to put things in perspective: Google spends five times more each year for its datacenters than the New York Times spends for its entire newsroom). Part of the reason is the return on such an investment. Financially speaking, the news business is not very appealing. See for yourself in this revenue per employee table.
Google being the 100 index :
But, to thrive, journalism requires more than a checkbook. It has to be built around a set of cultural traits that are in total contradiction to the engineering efficiencies of a search engine or an internet portal. Evidently, the modern news business requires more technology; and journalists needs the dialectics from their public. But news requires more professionalism than mere crowd-powered demagoguery. Today and, I believe, for as long as trust is to be part of the relationship with readers.