In the first part of my model for the 21st century newsroom I looked at how a story might move through a number of stages from initial alert through to customisation. In part two I want to look at sourcing stories, and the role of journalism in a new media world.
The last century has seen three important changes for the news industry. It has moved…
- from a world of information scarcity to information overload,
- from a world where commercial and government bodies needed the news industry to disseminate information, to one where they can disseminate information themselves.
- from a world where members of the public needed the news industry for information, to one where they can access – and produce – it themselves
In this environment the professional journalist can no longer justify a role simply processing content from source to consumer.
Instead, the modern journalist’s role needs to move above the content.
What does this mean? It means two things:
- Readers can access commercial and official sources online. Some journalists, then, need to collate , synthesise and verify reaction from the blogosphere and other sources. They need to interrogate sources more, to challenge assertions more, and to investigate stories that are going unreported.
- Readers can produce opinion, analysis and reporting online. Some journalists, then, need to develop a community management role, to manage content – to bring together bloggers and sources, to set up aggregation, submission and collaboration systems, and to crowdsource stories that would otherwise be impossible to cover.
A large part of both involves what I would call distributed journalism.
Distributed journalism means letting go of one asset – content – to build another: community. It means cultivating contacts, not just a contacts book. It means understanding communities, and sometimes being led by them. And it means creating tools and systems as often as creating stories.
Here’s the graphic – note that it is not top-down or hierarchical:
The distributed journalist uses a number of technologies to manage different ‘types’ of contributors. For the ‘brain’, the ‘voice’ and the ‘ear’ tools are central to monitoring and identifying the best ones; for the accidental journalist, the ‘value adder’, the technician and the crowd, systems are more important.
- The brain: journalists already use experts extensively. Traditionally these have been accessed through professional bodies and ‘ivory tower’ academic institutions. But this often means these sources are part of a narrow, political elite, which can have vested interests. New media forms allow people outside of those circles to publish – and develop – their own expertise, and develop their own reputations based on that. In this space, an ‘expert’ is not always officially denoted as such by an institution or organisation, but may demonstrate expertise through hands-on experience or through well supported arguments. The distributed journalist monitors those experts, subscribes to their RSS feeds, quotes when relevant and commissions when they need analysis. There is also an argument for leading by example: a distributed journalist who blogs is demonstrating they want to be part of the conversation, while employing an ‘enthusiast-in-chief’ who brings a reputation with them to lead a UGC site is a proven way to attract contributors.
- The voice: New media forms allow anyone to publish their opinion, which stands or falls by its own qualities. Separate to the expert, the voice writes well, compellingly, often wittily or in an entertaining fashion, whether or not they have expertise or personal experience – much as the traditional columnist does. Or they produce compelling imagery, video or audio. The distributed journalist identifies the blogger with a voice, brings them into the news organisation when they can, and links to them when they cannot. There is also a strong argument here for integration with other services – if you can allow users to tick a box that publishes their material to Flickr or add their RSS feed to your system, etc. then you are saving them time and effort, and showing you’re not just stealing their content.
- The ear: someone, somewhere, knows what’s going on in a particular community of space or interest. They may filter that to their blog, or Twitter account, or mailing list – or they may simply note what they see in a social bookmarking account. The distributed journalist subscribes to the RSS feeds or mailing list, becomes ‘Facebook friends’, and supports and encourages this filtering by linking and contributing when they can.
- And don’t forget the silent population: not everyone has internet access; not everyone has time to do these things. The distributed journalist must make an effort to give a voice to those people too. Partnering with groups who are in contact with those people is one good idea.
- The accidental journalist: this is the person who stumbles upon a news story – the archetypal citizen journalist – and captures it on a mobile phone, camcorder, or simply with their eyes. You cannot cultivate the accidental journalist in the same way as habitual producers – but news organisations have the biggest advantage in attracting them: their brand, reputation and reach. This is important: when the Cutty Sark catches fire, you want to be the news organisation the citizen journalist sends their pictures to.
So what can the news organisation do? Be available, be a trusted name, and have a budget to pay if you need to. Set up channels of access – include journalists’ emails in their reports; provide simple uploading facilities on your website; and invest resources in monitoring submissions both to your own site and to other user generated content sites like YouTube and Flickr – because the accidental journalist will not always know they have a story. Finally, get involved in media training with your community, so that a) they can spot a story; b) they produce something of decent quality; and c) they think of you first, because you’re the one who taught them to do a) and b).
- The value adder: the value adder is hot on facts, hot on grammar, hot on spelling (but not on style or legal issues, which is one reason why you still need in-house subs). They pick up the mistakes, and they clean up vandalism. They annotate, adding bits of information – comments, useful links, tags (internally if you have a tagging system for users and externally if they use services like Delicious or Digg), or votes on whether a story is ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Again, systems are key here – a responsive system for corrections; a commenting facility; tagging and bookmarking. And a culture of openness where feedback is welcomed and value adders thanked or recognised.
- The technician: this is the person who takes your stories, classifieds or raw data and maps them with Google Maps; who creates a comparison between your editorial agenda and what people are actually reading; who creates a Facebook app or a specialist RSS feed; or simply suggests an idea. The technician can add genuine creativity and value to content – but for them to do that you need to open up your systems - APIs, databases – so that they can mash them up with others, or make tweaks and improvements. You need to make the attributes of your story (location, age, score) available. And you need to provide support where you can.
- The crowd: the former audience is not just a group of people who can now talk to you. A conversation can only achieve so much. Crowdsourcing offers a way to cover issues and investigate stories that traditional journalism cannot match, by making users part of the newsgathering process.
It seems to me that there are two main types of crowdsourcing project: one taps into a diversity of expertise (the engineer, the insider, the accountant) or experience; the other taps into sheer manpower – lots of people doing a small task each, like sifting through one part of a large amount of information, making a request for information, or conducting one interview. Systems that facilitate that process – like wikis, content management sytems, or even simple online forms – are important, but so is developing support structures and identifying the one percent of users who are regular contributors.
Naturally these categories are not exclusive – the brain may have a good voice (so to speak); the ‘ear’ may add value; being part of a crowd may lead someone to think of filming a newsworthy event when they stumble upon it. Investment in any of these areas should lead to feedback in others, not to mention knock-on effects on circulation, an issue I’ll deal with in part 4.