Twitter does not have many users in Abbottabad in Pakistan, where Facebook is apparently more the social platform of choice. But it has enough to break the first sounds of gunfire in the fight which was to eventually lead to the death of Osama bin Laden. Sohaib Athar, with his @ReallyVirtual Twitter handle, is not the future of news he is the present of news. Mainstream media has in truth never really lived where events actually happen, unless it is in the centers of power where information control is practiced. So government, finance, entertainment and sports make it easier for news organisations to live where the news breaks.( Or indeed Royalty). Some organisations – Reuters, the AP, CNN, the BBC – have enough resource to provide a reasonable impression of living where news breaks, but for the rest, the game has been to assemble analysis, context, personality and subsidiary facts around the core of breaking news and to package it into a business.
The rise of the realtime social web has changed everything. The network effect now means that people with connectivity and curiosity really do live where news breaks. They are not journalists or reporters, but they are interested in finding out what they have heard or seen, as Sohaib Athar was yesterday. And the best way to get an answer is bot to ask and to tell. None of this is new, all of it is obvious, and all of it can be supported by evidence. When news breaks now, people want to both participate and talk about it, as they did even late on a Sunday evening when President Obama officially confirmed what had been alive on Twitter for some time.
There is far more real time information now about how news is both broken, passed around, read, watched, commented on and analysed than at any point in history. Huge tides of data roll through the servers of every platform and every news site and every IP address every day. What this data demonstrates is that stories are most engaging when they are happening, and that the level of interest and engagement for big stories is only increased when they are supplemented with context, new facts and conversation also in real time. I remember only a couple of years ago sitting in meetings at the Guardian where there was still real anxiety as to whether breaking news and covering live events was really the right thing for a news organisation which ‘was not a breaking news organisation’ to do. It was an understandable reaction to the terrifying prospect of being on 24 hours a day, engaging with stories at lighter depth and at greater speed than had previously been the case. This now seems an incredibly arcane discussion to have had.
If you are related to the world of news, as opposed to the world of analysis, if you don’t have a strategy for live stories and reporting, then you have a very limited future. If you wish to have credibility even in the world of analysis and have no presence in the breaking news conversation then I would strongly argue that over time this is going to dramatically and adversely affect your brand. My desire to read longer form articles by great journalists resides in me being familiar with their work already or having it recommended to me by people I trust. This is a habit formed entirely in the world of print and documentary formats, because there were no other options for me when I was growing up and becoming interested in the world. New audiences now assess quality through immediacy and relevance. You fail to register a story when it breaks, you lose an opportunity. You don’t have a sentient observer able to share immediate thoughts on the subject on a platform or network I belong to, you also lose. You are not available to be a trusted sounding or thinking post when big things happen, you won’t get them back to read or watch your insights three days later.
Live is not ‘yet another thing’ for a working journalist to understand , it is the great journalistic challenge of our time. The skill involved in providing real time valuable information for audiences around stories as they happen is crucial to being a credible journalist and a resilient news organisation. For those who question whether this kind of journalism can be valuable or high quality, there are three examples I can immediately think of to show them which rebuts the idea (if anybody realy still holds it) that working in real time degrades good journalism.
First, there is my former colleague Andrew Sparrow, at the Guardian. When we hired him, several years ago, what was striking about him was not his background, (he was a good lobby journalist who had worked for print publications) but that he was interested in the process of political reporting. He was something of a scholar on the issue of Parliamentary reporting and said he wanted to move online because he saw that political reporting and the internet were highly compatible but not being used particularly well. His meticulous live blogging of events such as the Chilcott Inquiry created a form of news reporting which had both the depth and context it was hard to cram into one space constrained article. This year at the British Press Awards, Andy was named political reporter of the year. This in an election year, where Labour lost power in the most unpredictable election for a decade, a coalition government stumbled into power and politics became momentarily dramatic. This is not just a reward for really sparkling journalism, but the validation of techniques now open to journalists such as liveblogging . To be adding context and knowledge to real time events, was the best way to report the election.
Secondly, I would point to the incredible work of Greg Mitchell over at The Nation. Mitchell has blogged every day of the Wikileaks story since it broke in November. Sometimes his posts are cursory and short, sometimes they are detailed and lengthy. But they are always there. It is interesting that neither the New York Times, or The Guardian come to that, have provided the kind of excellent meta coverage that Mitchell has managed. His daily beat on the story demonstrates what journalists are for in the world of real time communications and complexity. Journalists are there to spend time with stories and sources which are important but not always visible. Wikileaks will continue to unfold as a story over months and possibly years, yet no news outlets are covering it in the way Mitchell is ; he is the Wikileaks bar which is always open.
And last but not least, there is the much talked about work of Andy Carvin, or @acarvin as most of us know him as the head of social media strategy at NPR, Andy’s tweeting about the Arab Spring from an aggregational and curatorial perspective has actually made him on e of the most valuable available news resources on this story. His work has really set out a new template for a role as yet unspecified in news organisations and accidental to his duties at NPR. Carvin’s skill is in being timely, and diligent. He tweeted up to 500 times a day at the height of the Egyptian revolution, yet he never left Washington. Of course some would argue this is not ‘proper reporting’ although fewer and fewer people would actually contest that it doesn’t bear the hallmarks of the highest quality reporting. But every news organisation has desk editors don’t they? And desk editors follow stories through back channels, conversations, reading, watching and listening to material relevat to their field. Most desk editors will be totally engaged on every story of this magnitude to the same kind of sleepless depth as Andy Carvin, yet almost no desk editors expose this work in the way Carvin does. Why not? The job of arranging and cutting stories to length, commissioning the right headline, sitting in meetings to hear how the rest of the bulletin or newspaper is being put together will all take less and less time in the future, or cease completely. The necessity to find and cultivate sources outside your own correspondent network will only increase. I would be as motivated to buy or spend time with a news brand which had identifiable editors active in their areas of expertise, as I would with reporters. Andy Carvin’s job has baffled many news people; he works for NPR but his public service journalism is being done on an entirely different network. But it is very clear to me that he is absolutely a model of a 21st century ‘news editor’ but one tied to a story or theme, not a format.
Every news room will have to remake itself around the principle of being reactive in real time. Every page or story that every news organisation distributes will eventually show some way of flagging if the page is active or archived, if the conversation is alive and well or over and done with. Every reporter and editor will develop a real time presence in some form, which makes them available to the social web. When I say ‘will’ I of course don’t mean that literally . I think many of them won’t, but eventually they will be replaced by ones who do. The most interesting experiment in this area by mainstream media is currently Al Jazeera’s ‘Stream’ . even here though, the fluidity of topics and conversations is restricted by format.
For those who want to write or produce at length and in isolation from the real-time web, then this will continue, magazines, documentaries, books and films will continue to have a life independent of ‘the stream’.And there is at the moment value in this resource intensive research and longer form journalism. It is a kind of slow journalism which underwrites the real time events. However, in terms of how to connect it to the real world and find audiences, it needs integrating more rigorously into this new world which transcends schedules or institutions.
Recently the AP’s interactive news guru Jonathan Stray posted a very thought provoking piece on news search on his blog. The whole post is really worth reading and absorbing, but critically it identifies the idea that reporting information needs to transcend current formats, and be highly aggregational and searchable. And live. Imagining how a new type of story would be structured he says:
A text story about refugees due to war and other catastrophes is an obvious introduction, especially if it includes maps and other multimedia. And that would typically be the end of the story by today’s conventions. But we can do deeper. The International Organization for Migration maintains detailed statistics on the topic. We could plot that data, make it searchable and linkable. Now we’re at about the level of a good news app today. Let’s go further by making it live, not a visualization of a data set but a visualization of a data feed, an automatically updating information resource that is by definition evergreen. And then let’s pull in all of the good stories concerning migration, whether or not our own newsroom wrote them.
Even in the time I have been writing this post, Giga Om took a brief look at this compressed cycle where news breaks at the speed of thought concluding, not unreasonably that once a new news cycle is established in requires new tools and ways of thinking to respond to it.
The live updating stream of thought and reaction is here to stay, and it will become more prevalent rather than less. If they haven’t already news businesses will need to prepare their journalists, their technologies and their interfaces to reflect this new world. It is not about ‘being first at the cost of being right’, it is about being there, or not .