Monday, May 30, 2011

Traditional-form journalism a "luxury"?

I read an interesting online exchange between two social media thinkers whose opinions I really respect, and what was most interesting was how far apart their thinking was on the topic of Twitter, journalism and the place that traditional articles have in the mix of modern-day reporting.

Appropriately, I was alerted to the exchange from several tweets.

It started with a post by Jeff Jarvis on his blog Buzz Machine that led off with the comment "A few episodes in news make me think of the article not as the goal of journalism but as a value-added luxury or as a byproduct of the process."

That prompted a response from Matthew Ingram at GigaOm making the point that as important as stream-of-news coverage is, more fully fleshed-out articles that add meaning and context are just as valuable. (Both of their posts were later updated to include the other's reaction, and their own reaction to the reaction, which later evolved into a lengthy back-and-forth on Facebook.)

The crux of Jarvis's argument is that when journalists' time is so precious, he'd rather have them putting that time into reporting, and dispensing it to the audience as rapidly and efficiently as possible, primarily via Twitter. That's why he calls articles summarizing news events after the fact as "an extra service to readers. A luxury, perhaps."

The gist of Ingram's response is that considering articles a luxury goes too far off in one direction because "while real-time reporting is very powerful, we still need someone to make sense of those streams and put them in context. In fact, we arguably need that even more."

My own view lies closer to Ingram's. The contemporary environment is incredibly rich in information, much of which is original on-the-ground reporting from professionals and also from citizen journalists. While I see Jarvis's point about journalists making the best use of their time, arguably there is no shortage of reporting out there. Sense-making is what is in short supply.

The exchange reminded me of an article in Nieman Reports a fews years ago by Simon Waldman, who at the time was director of digital publishing for Guardian Newspapers. He wrote that “The disciplines of traditional media aren’t just awkward restrictions. Deadlines, limits on space and time, the need to have a headline and an intro and a cohesive story rather than random paragraphs, all of these factors force out meaning and help with understanding. Without the order they impose, it’s much, much harder to make sense of what’s happening in the world.”

In the 2005 article, Waldman said with regard to citizen-witness contributions to coverage of the December 2004 tsunami in southern Asia, the power came from the vividness and volume of the comments. “But out of this sheer volume, " he also wrote "the movement’s great weakness was exposed – the lack of shape, structure and overall meaning to all that was available. There is a fundamental difference between reading hundreds of people’s stories and understanding the ‘real’ story. … Making sense of it all needed the sort of distillation, reduction and, yes, the editing process that happens in traditional media.”

Even when the reporting is being done by professional journalists -- as in the several examples cited in Jarvis's post -- I think that holds true. The ongoing process of the reporting is important, but so is the follow through of articles that provide context and summary.

I also found it interesting that a number of comments attached to Jarvis's and Ingram's posts compared after-the-fact curation to the old journalistic practice of the rewrite desk, which I think offers a good analogy and a good perspective on the worth of traditional journalistic values and practices even with all of the modern tools and techniques at journalists' disposal.

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