Thursday, January 19, 2012

New media provide path to legacy reporting

This morning I woke to the news that the iconic company Eastman Kodak, which is based in my hometown of Rochester N.Y., was entering Chapter 11 bankruptcy re-organization. I found this news, as I'm finding progressively more of my news, through Twitter.

But more important than where I learned it through is where I learned it from. The first tweet I saw shortly after 6 a.m. was actually a link to a follow-up story to the main news announcement, and came from the local daily, the Gannett-owned Democrat and Chronicle. (Side note: if the paper had been delivered on time, I probably would have learned the news from it in hard copy; I was reading Twitter news on my iPad because of the late delivery. Inability to get my paper on time is an ongoing problem, but I digress.)

Working my way back through the Twitter stream were more posts from legacy organizations linking to coverage on their websites. The local PBS affiliate. A local AM radio news station. The New York Times. The first of them to appear actually came from The Wall Street Journal, conveniently re-tweeted about 1 a.m. EST by a former student who now works for NBC News. Intermixed among these reports were tweets from individual local journalists whom I follow, including an on-Twitter conversation that took place about 3 a.m. between a local news producer and the executive editor of the D&C about getting copies of the paper delivered to the TV newsroom.

It was an interesting into-practice exercise in something I'd been thinking about just 12 hours earlier, when I finally got around to reading an article from the November/December issue of Columbia Journalism Review. The essay by Dean Starkman critiques the popular advocacy of journalism's evolution into a non-institutional, loosely networked form and says that news institutions still have value and are worth preserving. Starkman's essay -- which is subtitled "The limited vision of the news gurus" -- is basically a long take-down of what he calls the "Future of News consensus" (FON for short) and its advocates, notably Dan Gillmor, Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen. (He's especially critical of Jarvis.)

I actually have been following the work of all four of Starkman's targets for some time. In the past few years I have been to events where I have seen all of them speak, and even was on a panel with Rosen a few years back. And I like a lot of what they say, and use some of their writing and ideas in some of my teaching about the evolution of journalism. I especially like to tell students about Shirky's notion that "everything might" provide the journalism we need -- i.e., that 20 new and innovative ways of creating the news that each provide 5 percent of what the current system does might actually be more valuable than One Big Thing to replace the broken print newspaper model.

I also think Starkman is being a little hyperbolic, and polemical, in the way he presents their views, which he repeatedly summarizes as FON.

But I also think Starkman is essentially on point when he says it's wrong to be dismissive of the value of institutional news organizations and their ability ability to provide valuable public-interest reporting, and when he says that it is naive to think that all of the information we need as a society will organically bubble up from a network in which anyone and everyone can supply information to the whole world. Or that such a news system will have the cohesion and understandability to make it useful to citizens . "Gatekeeping" has become almost a dirty word in the world of networked news prognosticators. But to me, it is just another word for distillation of a chaotic mass of information into a meaningful form that is valuable to the readers.

A couple of years ago, a friend from another institution wrote a blog posting predicting that soon he would get all the news he needs from Twitter. I kind of rolled my eyes at that one.

Now I do find myself getting a lot of news through Twitter. But not, as noted at the top, from Twitter. Even when the tweet is by a friend, or even by a stranger whom I've chosen to follow, there often is a legacy source behind that shortlink that's where the news is really from.

In that, Starkman's self-described neo-institutional model addresses something that matters. He closes his essay with the thought that "rebuilding or shoring up institutions is going to take some new, new thinking, but it can be done." He's right.

No comments: