Spring 2005

Arriving at the Digital News Age

‘It is in this fusion of old and new that the future of journalism most probably lies.’

By Simon Waldman
There is a fundamental difference between reading hundreds of people’s stories and understanding the ‘real’ story.Less than a decade ago, people would talk at conferences about a time in the distant future when digital technologies would allow anyone to be a reporter and publish to the world. Unlike much of what was once discussed, this vision has come true. And if there was any doubt that this era has arrived, then the global sharing of news and stories that happened in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami has laid those to rest.

While traditional media tried to come to grips with this complex evolving story, text messages, blog posts, photographs and video clips appeared online, bringing us thousands of people’s firsthand experiences of the horrific event. As viewer or reader, one could not fail to be moved nor impressed by how this enormous amount and range of content was created, disseminated and consumed instantly and effortlessly by people living in every region of the world.

New media commentator Steve Outing saw the volume and quality of this output and wrote, “Mainstream news organizations should consider the RELATED ARTICLE
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tsunami story as the seminal marker for introducing citizen journalism into the hallowed space that is professional journalism.” Indeed, Webloggers’ reports were let into that hallowed space—at least certain corners of it. The BBC integrated bloggers reports into its Web site, and a number of papers, The Guardian included, published extracts from various postings on their print pages.

Peter Preston, a former editor of The Guardian, used the following words to describe what this use exemplified: “Your readers and viewers were also your correspondents. Your ability to be in touch was digital as well as conventional. That is a quantum shift, however you phrase it: The world shrinks in an instant. And foreign news desks, maybe, will never be the same again.”

It was remarkable. But the sheer excess of the disaster highlighted both the great strength and the great weakness of the fledgling citizen journalism movement. Clearly its great strength was the vividness of first-person accounts and the sheer volume of them. But out of this sheer volume, 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.

With the tsunami coverage, the story was big, complex and continually evolving. For the better part of a week, we learned nothing of what had happened at Aceh, in Indonesia, where there were no tourists with camcorders. And the politics of the international aid effort took the evolving story in new directions. Making sense of it all needed the sort of distillation, reduction and, yes, the editing process that happens in traditional media.

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 online environment, many of these physical guideposts are removed, but that does not mean that the intellectual processes that result from them should not be maintained. They should. And it was here that traditional media carved out their role—and will continue to do so for many years to come.

Of course, smart editors combined the best of both worlds—using the blogosphere as a wire feed of first-person experiences to mesh with their own reporters’ information and analysis. It is in this fusion of old and new that the future of journalism most probably lies. In an essay entitled “The Massless Media” in January’s Atlantic Monthly, William Powers said he saw “a new media establishment taking form, it’s shaped like a pyramid, with a handful of mass outlets at the top and innumerable niches supporting them from below, barking upward.”

This clearly defined hierarchy Powers describes is probably a little too neat. If something new is taking form, it is likely not to be a neat “establishment” but an intricate and complex ecosystem in which bloggers, traditional journalists, and news aggregators all feed—and feed off—each other.

When The Guardian published a spread of quotes from bloggers in the days after the tsunami, they appeared on the features pages to complement the news coverage. “This was more a story about the bloggers than a case of entrusting the entire telling of the story to bloggers,” says Esther Addley, one of the editors who put the spread together. “If this was all we’d done in terms of our tsunami coverage, that would have been worrying.”

Ironically, the great danger for traditional media is not that, as many bloggers think, they ignore this eruption of amateur content. It is too rich a source for any half decent desk editor to pass by. (Not to mention the fact that it is often free to use). No, the real danger is that editors pounce upon it too quickly and pay the price with their credibility.

The Guardian’s features team contacted each blogger they quoted, doing their best to test for veracity. As with any first-person source, it was ultimately a judgment call whether to use the quotes. But as Addley stresses, at the time similar judgment calls were being made by journalists around the world, as eyewitness testimonies were given to print and broadcast journalists following the disaster.

For The Guardian, it worked. Others were not so fortunate. In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami, The Times of India carried a story on how blogs did a better job than most newspapers in covering the event. The story’s headline read “Blogs beat conventional media.” A few days later, their enthusiasm for the online world got the better of them as they, along with a number of other newspapers throughout the world, carried a front page picture taken off the Internet of what was meant to be the tsunami. It was, in fact, a photograph of a tidal bore on the Qiantangjiang River in China taken two years earlier.

In this way a thousand hoaxes lie. We have been warned.

Simon Waldman is director of digital publishing for Guardian Newspapers. He also has been a Weblogger for about three years. His own Weblog, in which he writes about “Newspapers, new media and beyond ….” can be reached at SimonWaldman.net.

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