Occupy Wall Street: Photo : Anna Hiatt

Occupy Wall Street: a visual culture for networked news. Photo: Anna Hiatt

Occupy Wall Street is the perfect framework for understanding what is happening to news dissemination in an internet age. If there is a journalist or journalism student left in New York who has not yet been down to Zuccotti Park,  they should feel uncomfortably ashamed. The park itself has become a striking metaphor for the internet; it is a space which is privately controlled but to which the public have access, giving the impression of freedom of association without the assurance of continuity.

It is also a story with some complexity, a nebulousness some find irritating, and others find refreshingly nuanced. It is also an overwhelmingly visual story. Go to the Park, read the signs. Here is a post from academic Dr Alison Trope at USC Annenberg on exactly this subject. It is a theme which is as relevant to news reporting as it is to political and media theory.

The movement itself bamboozled the mainstream media and government with what was perceived as a lack of purpose. ‘They don’t know what they want’ being the generic complaint from mainstream outlets such as CNN. Again, if you visit the square, and read the dozens and dozens of signs it is clear what the complaints are, but they are not expressed in a way which is readily interpreted by packaged media.  For those of us who attended plenty of student marches in the 1980s, the mass-produced signs, run off in a student union or by a fringe political organisation, bore one short message with a simple solution;  ‘Coal Not Dole’, ‘Ban the Bomb’, ‘Thatcher Out’, ‘Rock Against Racism’. These messages were created, knowingly or subconsciously, with the medium in mind. One minute on the evening news and one shot in the newspaper, the unitary message is vital, but in the world of the real time social web it is over too soon, it lacks the conversational tone necessary for engagement of audiences. At last year’s good humoured but largely ineffectual Rally for Sanity, the signs were the principal output of the movement, grabbing the coat tails of the rise in photo sharing through easy to use tools like Facebook, Twitpic, Yfrog and flickr.

Nothing could be further from this packaged media message than the maker culture signs of OWS protesters. The cardboard-and-marker factory of pointed sentiments heavily personalised, carefully held up for iPhones and professional photographers alike, spread the movement around the web, infiltrating social discussions, and fueling an event where the  ‘story’ lacks the kind of definition which helps journalists to frame traditional reports. The lack of one punch-on-the-nose message is replaced by a stream of visual talking points around subjects as diverse as student debt, Ben Bernanke’s suitability for his job and pension rights.  A complex economic phenomenon such as the growth of disparity in wealth has no one solution, and demands a complex response.

In blogging about  Dr Trope’s observation ‘the revolution will be hashtagged’, academic Henry Jenkins says this:

These groups are refusing to create a simple unified message of the kind that are familiar from “disciplined,” hierarchical, and established political movements. Rather, they seek to multiply the messages and to expand the range of different media framings so that they may speak to a broader range of different participants. No one piece of media reaches everyone; rather, media is produced quickly and cheaply and spread widely so that each piece of media produced may speak to a different set of followers.

Our understanding of how news stories are constructed, sustained and create impact is shifting, in the same way that movements and protests are reformatting. When our students at Columbia Journalism  School a reported the occupation they realised that this was a story which could not be squeezed into the template of  conventional assignments. It was a multi-faceted story which happened locally but projected internationally, it involved many aspects and themes, and it was long – days, weeks, months – but rewarded minute-by-minute attention.  Covering the movement from the early days is a learning experience for everyone, not just J schoolers.

One of our students, Anna Hiatt,  took a terrific set of photos, but in the process also tweeted pictures in real time by taking camera phone shots of her dSLR viewfinder; an inventive way to combine the demands of the social real time web and the durability of high quality content . Another student, Andrew Katz, has become a semi-permanent fixture at the protests, often not knowing exactly how much of his time it will take,  because the demands of the story fluctuate, making the routine question  ‘what are the 700 words today?’ redundant. Creating a context with presence and consistency, there is plenty of room for – maybe even higher demand for – longform analysis. The piece gaining most traction for the students this week was an essay about the lack of intellectual leadership around the protests.

In Oakland both the established local news outlets  such as theTribune and non-profit Oakland Local,  have to keep the live story  flowing as things turned ugly in the Oakland demonstrations. These are tools, techniques and demands which were not apparent at local or even national level even as recently as two years ago. What OWS is once again illustrating for newsrooms and journalists is how to prepare for this altered reality. Creating context for yourself and your journalism in networks is crucial. Planning to feed stories into more than one publication at various frequencies is entirely necessary, and that those who are present – not just physically, but in the conversation – will get better stories, and greater traction. This is more true now than at any point.

If Occupy Wall Street creates an effective hashtagged presence that forms a platform for engagement and stories, debate and disagreement around something as arcane as economic policies, it has already outstripped the mainstream media . Stories which are important,  but shift on an incremental basis confounding conventional formats has upended journalism in the recent past. The financial crisis might have been eloquently covered by dozens of writers, but it seldom gained adequate traction with the audiences that mattered. Climate change, the rise of al-Quaeda, the collapse of banks, maybe next the crisis in higher education, these are all complex stories with lengthy trajectories which fit into the category of ‘low probability, high impact’ subjects to cover.  Committed in-depth reporting is needed on all of this and more, but the journalistic process for assembling and delivering this to the relevant audiences and engaging their interest needs to be as creative and flexible as the web itself. OWS has so far upset some media outlets by defying dictation about what is and what is not a story, when it is worth reporting and when it should be dropped. For the reporters who were active and listening and reporting the pulse of the movement, it has been an exhilarating time. For those who missed the story, there is a lot to learn for next time.