2009 is rapidly turning into a vintage year for old-school journalism whine.
Traditional newsies — both the ink-stained wretches and the blow-dried TV variety — were already approaching critical mass with their complaints about the Internet, Twitter, social media and their impact on journalistic credibility and accountability, not to mention their ability to remain in business. However, the past two weeks’ worth of major news developments have practically made heads explode, and it’s all because new media’s impact on newsgathering has been in their faces and off the charts.
Iran and its election-related protests and violence made Twitter a legitimate sidebar to one of the top international news stories so far this year. The State, South Carolina’s biggest newspaper, saw its biggest Web traffic numbers ever on June 24 thanks to having the first interview with Gov. Mark Sanford, who had just ridden his presidential aspirations into the ground in true Argentinian gaucho style via an extramarital affair and ham-fisted cover-up. The State.com doesn’t get those numbers without links from The Drudge Report.
Then there’s Michael Jackson. I know you wanna be startin’ something about whether Jackson’s untimely death was worthy of cable news wall-to-wall coverage of the “Off The Wall” artist, what with Iran continuing to simmer, North Korea once again preparing to celebrate an American holiday with its own brand of fireworks, an ambitious Obama healthcare reform package and other noteworthy celebrity passings. (Goodbye, Farrah, and a final “hi-yo” for Mr. McMahon; I wanted to hear more about their lives and legacies, but then again, I never learned how to moonwalk. Most of the people working in cable network newsrooms — hell, anchoring their newscasts — probably did and wore out their personal copies of “Thriller,” hence the news judgment shown on June 25 and 26.)
The argument continues over the level of coverage. What isn’t debatable is that it wasn’t CNN, NBC or the Los Angeles Times that broke the story of Jackson’s death. Getting it first, right and fast was TMZ.com, Harvey Levin’s celebrity/entertainment Web site. Sure, the cable networks kept citing TMZ as the source of the Jackson story, but wouldn’t say it was an “official” death until the L.A. coroner’s office confirmed it; that included CNN, which like TMZ is owned by Time Warner. Jeez, if you can’t trust your own family …
The TMZ scoop has earned the Web site traditional media reappraisal — and the by-now-traditional huge helping of envy. An L.A. Times Comments Blog entry headlined “How Would We Have Reacted if TMZ Had Been Wrong About Michael Jackson’s Death?” was, I guess, alternative history serving as analysis. How would we have reacted if Woodward and Bernstein hadn’t followed the money? Discuss.
Stories and media critic columns have followed, weighing in with variations on the following: Tweets aren’t news, being forced to tweet/ask for followers/friend the audience is dumb, social media is overhyped by news (especially CNN), user-generated news isn’t credible, celebrity Web sites are dumbing down news values, the Internet is setting new land-speed records for publishing unverified stories, etc. The 24/7 mediaverse becomes indistinguishable from the white noise machine on your nightstand.
Here’s a big bowl of “duh” for your breakfast. Of course, taken by themselves, none of those techno-news developments will help the cause of journalism. What most critics inside and outside newsrooms have failed to take into account is that this latest spate of big news stories were actually brewed from a heady mix of old and new media.
To paraphase a certain legendary anchorman who never tweeted, that’s the way it now is, and should be.
The New-Old Media Partnership
Former NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin, now a visiting professor of journalism at Toronto’s Ryerson University, came up through the old-school journalism ranks but now outs himself as a member of the “blog-oisie.” Journalism’s future, he says, relies on that blend of old and new media: the old to provide values, vetting and shoe-leather reporting, and the new to help gather information, disseminate it quickly and take the pulse of the audience.
Dvorkin points to the BBC’s ownership of the Iran protest story as exhibit A.”The BBC lab has been working to develop new kinds of social media,” Dvorkin tells me during a phone interview. “The BBC has, at least on this story, had a tremendous advantage over the rest of us, partly because the Persian service of BBC Radio is so influential there, but they have been working for years to create these social networks where people, citizen journalists, are constantly referencing the BBC and reporting back to them. That’s an example of where they did a good job collaborating with social media and getting the story and trying to figure out what it all means, and keeping an eye out for disinformation that was going on out there (among social networks).”
Believe it or not, Dvorkin also gives high marks to CNN’s coverage of Michael Jackson’s death for the same reasons. Dvorkin was actually watching BBC’s early reports on Jackson, and it was clear to him the Beeb wasn’t on firm, familiar footing. “I switched over to Anderson Cooper on CNN and it was bells and whistles and a sort of ongoing commentary and obit material and it was just wonderful. They clearly had the resources to pull that story together that blended old media and new media, and it was a perfect example of how it could work when it does work.”
I had a front row seat for watching those resources in action during my time at CNN Center from 2001 to 2007. When it comes to breaking news, Dvorkin’s right: there’s nobody better. Producers and bookers in Atlanta and New York have encyclopedic Rolodexes jammed with names and contact info of A-list experts and analysts. My argument is whether those formidable resources are put to the best use on celebrity/entertainment/pop culture stories, and why those stories then have to be pummeled into submission by CNN over a period of days and weeks. To be fair, Dvorkin argues that Jackson initially deserved the smotherage because of his impact on African-American and white culture, and serving as a bridge between the two.
Introducing OneStopNews, Inc.
Dvorkin carried the usual amount of former-newsie cynicism about the news when he started teaching his Ryerson workshop in January for master’s candidates in journalism. He was told to get them to experiment with new media forms, using the Mumbai terrorist attacks as the scenario. “I asked the kids, 27 of them, to come up with a coverage plan that would create a Web site that would cover an ongoing rolling event like the Mumbai massacre, with text, audio, video, wikis, blogs, but also do a triage of information of what is reliable and what is not reliable.”
The result: the One Stop Media Company, a workshop proposal that combines new and old technologies, social media and on-the-ground reporting. I’ve added a link to the proposal, but the gist of it involves using social networks like Twitter and Facebook to gather early live information.
OneStopNews would be transparent about the origins and verification of the information and would work to confirm the reports via a resource list made up of on-the-ground journalists plus pre-verified bloggers and tweeters. That resource list would be maintained as an internal wiki within the newsroom. The company would also issue breaking news alerts on those social networks early and often, to make sure their reports were the ones being “retweeted.”
As the story progresses, video reports from the company’s professional journalists start appearing on the Web site. Timelines are developed, with the level of verification of reports color-coded. User-generated content would be used and parsed via outlets like the NewsTrust blog aggregator. Web site visitors wanting information on the breaking story would also see threaded discussion boards, interactive maps and a filtered Twitter feed — a trained, experienced company journalist providing the filtering, of course, to avoid the torrent of unchecked information like that seen in the early stages of the Iran protests.
The OneStop plan also makes room for context; members start working up background information on Mumbai and its population. “The contextual components of OneStopNews help users situate the Mumbai attacks in a broader cultural, geographic and historical framework,” the proposal reads.
The twenty-somethings who came up with this plan reawakened Dvorkin’s optimism about journalism’s future. “They understand instinctually how to marry disparate elements of the media environment — and they came up with this brilliant plan, and a business model as well.” That business model relies on advertising, not paywalls, but the ads must be sensitive to the nature of the news being transmitted.
“We’re gonna be OK,” he says of journalists and journalism. “But it’s going to be a strange time because these media organizations are getting rid of older journalists — they’re more expensive because they’re more experienced. The instincts of this next generation of journalists are just terrific, I think. I just hope there are enough old farts around to take advantage and help them with the best standards of journalism that we need.”
Memo to Newsies: Quit your Bitchin’
As I’ve said before, nobody’s more old-school than Your Humble Narrator. (Even that particular title is a last-century pop-culture reference; extra props to anyone who picks up on it.) I think in the long history of boneheaded media moves, kicking experienced talent to the curb or denying them the training in new technologies is especially egregious. Yes, embracing new media for the sake of embracing it tells everyone watching/reading your content that you are just another Disco Stu of the news world. But loudly trashing the new media, as some current and former on-air anchors have done lately, sets them up for a dangerous game of “Let’s Eat Our Words” on future stories.
The middle ground — the blend of new and old — is there for the taking. The legacy media types must stop their whining about what shape the future of news will take. It’s already here. Social networks and user-generated media are already firmly entwined around the DNA of current newsgathering, as the last two weeks attest. Learn to adapt or learn to stop complaining when the next big story breaks and you’re not around to cover it.
TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.