Millions of Citizens Better Informed

21 06 2009

This week I was catching up on a podcast that I like a lot: NPR’s On the Media. The topic from this particular segment from May 29 was the demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer print edition, and the impact on the availability of solid journalism in the Seattle area. As a former Seattle resident, I was a little sad. I got to thinking also about the events of this week in Iran, and how social media took such a prominent role in both getting the news out and keeping the established media accountable. In many ways it was a “revolution within a revolution”.

My first instinct when I hear of an institution like the P-I going under is to be disappointed, because I respect the profession of journalism in general, and I understand that it means that there are going to be a block of quality reporters from that newsroom out of work. These are people who by definition don’t do what they do for the money; they do it to keep us all better informed in a meaningful way, and do so using a professional filter that allows each of us to have a measure of confidence that what we’re reading is something we can believe.

This editorial professionalism is enormously important, and something we cannot lose sight of as traditional print journalism dies and transitions online. Going back to the On the Media segment, there was a good discussion about how these reporters have been replaced by “news gatherers”. Eli Sanders, quoted below, is a senior writer for The Stranger, an alt weekly in Seattle.

BOB GARFIELD: In general, how are the news gatherers doing at gathering the news that the reporters used to report?

ELI SANDERS: You can see them struggling to keep their heads above water, I think. If you go to the site today, you’ll see a lot of links to other news outlets in the region for basic stories, links to The Seattle Times, which is The P-I’s former archrival, which it would never have, in the past, wanted to credit on basics news of the city, links to the Tacoma News Tribune, which is a paper in the city south of Seattle.

So, they are trying valiantly, with a staff of 14 news gatherers, to cover the city in the way that their staff of 150-plus used to, but it’s an impossible task.

That’s a pretty depressing thought, that there would be human “news gatherers” replacing classicly-trained professional reporters. It’s especially true considering that my home page both on my PC’s browser and on my iPhone is Google News, which I have to believe does an immeasurably better job of “news gathering” than a person would, does it in real time, and does it for free.

The conversation transitions into how the gaps are being filled now that there isn’t a traditional news room. The conclusion is that social media is filling many of the gaps. In Seattle, it’s neighborhood blogs that are taking over the heavy lifting:

BOB GARFIELD: Now, I know your own weekly, The Stranger, has filled some of that vacuum. How else has it been filled?

ELI SANDERS: It’s been filled by community blogs, in some measure. West Seattle has West Seattle Blog. Ballard, which is a trendy neighborhood, has My Ballard. Capitol Hill has a number of blogs, including Notable neighborhood blogs tend to be the wealthier ones.

But in the poorer neighborhoods you don’t have blogs that are as well known. They exist, and they certainly cover the poorer neighborhoods, but they are not as robust as the others.

Tracy Record, a journalist and the maintainer of the aforementioned West Seattle Blog, was asked by host Brooke Gladstone how the blog got started:

TRACY RECORD: It was one year after we started the site, in December of 2006, the whole area here was hit by a tremendous windstorm. And our neighborhood in particular suffered from outages, and it was very difficult, particularly in the citywide media, to find any West Seattle-specific information.

Some of the small readership we’d built up at the time started asking, do you guys know anything about what’s going on, can you find out any information? And so taking the skills that I had from more than a quarter century in journalism, we just kind of turned ourselves into a mobile news team and headed out.

The start of that particular blog, which has now replaced core subject areas of a defunct 146-year-old newspaper, was a power outage. An unexpected event that created a need that became a new, localized journalistic outlet that grew into an essential news medium for thousands.

This made me reflect on the events of this week in Iran.

For those of you who may be reading this that have not been following social media’s relationship and impact on the events following the Iranian election, here‘s a quick timeline from CNN. What’s not in that timeline is fact that as the world’s leading news agencies were being ejected from Iran, and the Iranian government were actively shutting down Web and e-mail access as well as cell and wireline telephone access, Twitter and Facebook were ablaze with realtime information.

Social media quickly became the news outlet to the world. At one point, Twitter had over 221,000 Iran-related updates in one hour. Twitter was planning to do schedule maintenance and the US Government asked them to postpone it. What they were providing was too important to cut off, even for a couple of hours.

At the same time, the major news outlets were covering comparatively little about what was proving to be a historic event. CNN, usually the Lead Dog in these situations, was not doing any of its customary wall-to-wall. So, who was holding them accountable?

You guessed it. Twitter users. CNN took a pounding in the Twittersphere, and in direct response they stepped up and started covering much more on balance with the BBC, NY Times and other outlets. CNN had been courting the social media-savvy audience for months, and they responded quickly to the pressure. Rightly so, and to their credit.

With 221,000 tweets an hour, though, why do we need CNN? Do we?

I say yes, very much so. We still need journalistic editorial oversight of the information. We still need analysis.

We still need newsrooms, with journalists we can believe.

The relevance of Twitter (and Facebook, and YouTube, and FriendFeed) has been firmly established, flowing in the undercurrent of the larger events of the Iranian election. However, massive volumes of information do not make for journalism. There has always been a massive volume of information available out there, since before Gutenberg. Whether it’s reporting on the school board meeting, or on the public shooting of a 16-year-old Iranian girl named Neda, we still need professionals to sift through the information, verify it, put it in context, and present it to us so we can put it to use.

That’s the core of a free society; the spirit of the First Amendment. It leads to millions of citizens better informed, and more able to choose their own destiny. Journalism should not be presumed dead in the age of social media. It just needs to adjust to the new medium, and the new rules.

In the meantime, it’s up to us, as consumers of information, to insist on professional journalism’s survival. It’s a noble calling.