This essay was written a while back, but I thought it still has relevance.
In the 1970s, a reporter sat behind a gray metal Army surplus desk. Piles of carefully labeled notebooks were stacked neatly in the drawers. Typically, years of notebooks were tucked away – the equivalent to a small library of personal writings and contacts. The notebooks were kept for a variety of reasons including the ability to follow up on a story in the future and, in some cases, act as a defense in case of libel claim. Also on the desk, usually next to the rotary or push button phone, a Rolodex with phone contacts and business cards taped to 3 x 5 index cards was kept. Decades before the advent of email, social media and smart phones, a reporter’s life seemed relatively manageable. Today, information management is like opening Pandora’s box. Terms such as blogging, tweets, curation, crowdsourcing, citizen journalism, aggregation, and really simple syndication have entered the vernacular.
Until recently, publishing information was expensive and typically tied to attracting advertisers to pay for content. Publishers had to assume financial risks in the hope that people would be willing to buy a newspaper, magazine or book. Steven Rosenbaum, author of the book Curation Nation observes, “It used to be that making and moving information was so expensive that the question of who was going to get permission to speak was a central social and political issue. But now speech is more democratic.” The unintended consequence of “democracy” in the chaos that has become the web appears to be determining who gets heard. When the term “chaos” is used to describe the amount of data flowing across the Internet is an understatement. Today, the Internet has seen the creation of more than 133 million blogs, Twitter, the macro blogging service, claims it has 75 million users, and the giant social networking site Facebook has more than 500 million members. According to Search Engine Land, members update their profiles on Facebook at a rate of 700 per second, there are more than 600 tweets per second on Twitter, and Google receives 34,000 searches per second. Add to all this, the video sharing site YouTube receives more than 2 billion viewers a day. These staggering statistics are both a boon and a burden for many journalists, since much of the information appears more like chatter than substantive news.
Today, a majority of Americans seek information online. For a publisher to be successful in the “print” world he or she would factor in the cost of their time, know-how, amount of ink and paper needed, as well as keeping technologies such as linotype machines and a printing press all up to speed. Therefore, publishers were less about how many books they printed and more about how many books they could sell. Printers, therefore, acted as quality control filters on what got printed and sold to the public. Clay Shirky contends, “What is quite obviously happening is that the number of things that are available for short attention are increasing. But, so is the ability to consume complicated, long-form information.” Shirky believes that information overload is not really the problem with news content today – it’s the ability to control the quality not quantity of information that really counts. For journalism educator Matt Hinckley, "Too much information bouncing around at the speed of thought leads to too much information erroneously being 'reported' or accepted as 'fact’ … the increasing proliferation of choices means that news consumers can choose to focus exclusively on 'infotainment,' and thus disengage from serious coverage of critical issues."
Although information overload is probably not fatal, the sheers quantity of news content accessible to readers appears problematic for some in the news industry. Some critics argue the 24/7 news cycle of the Internet is undermining journalism’s ability to reliably and accurately report the news. Other contend, however, that while the news industry is struggling to transition to the quixotic nature of the Web, the actual practice of connecting with audiences through the creation of compelling content remains strong. Instead of a mass media once dedicated to serving an entire community, the Internet is creating, as Shaw suggests, forms of media aimed at specialized audiences. For a free press to function in a democracy the media must strive to be unbiased, objective, and fair-minded. However, with so much information available on the Internet, opportunities to mislead the public abound. Reid Goldsborough warns, “To try to keep up with the "infoglut", we start the day earlier and end it later, in some cases never ending it. With the help of the ever-expanding choices of ever-cooler portable communication devices, many of us are, less than blissfully, connected 24/7.” According to research conducted by the University of California at Berkeley in 2008, every year the amount of information produced globally increases by 30 percent. Further, consider the fact that Internet giant, Google, reached a breakthrough with exceeding one trillion unique links on the Web in the same year as the Berkeley study. Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Bree Nordenson observes, “Say goodbye to the gigabyte and hello to the exabyte, five of which are worth 37,000 Libraries of Congress. In 2006 alone, the world produced 161 exabytes of digital data, the equivalent of three million times the information contained in all the books ever written. By 2010, it is estimated that this number will increase to 988. Pick your metaphor: we're drowning, buried, snowed under.
Joanne Teoh Kheng Yau and Suliman Al-Hawamdeh (2001) suggest, “With the unit of information shifting to bytes, knowledge acquisition, once based on book learning, is becoming increasingly non-linear. As myriad world views are opened up by the Web, journalists, editors, and information designers are being called upon to turn information to useful knowledge.” In other words, journalists are must adjust to new ways of gathering, writing and disseminating news. According to the technology website, Techdirt, “The biggest problem that news organizations face these days isn't scary "news aggregators," but that there are now many, many, many other communities that people can join, and most of them treat their members a lot better.” In other words, journalists need to be entrepreneurial and intelligent about how they gather and deliver the news.
Recently, Martin Moore, director of the Media Standards Trust in England, attended the Future of News and Civic Media conference and left with a feeling of hope and surprise. For Moore, There are growing numbers of people in the States who have moved beyond the increasingly circular debates about how to sustain the incumbent news industry. Instead, they are working on lots of projects that use the Internet and mobile to provide the public with timely information, in an accessible way. In other words, deliver what journalism did – or was meant to – deliver, without calling it journalism.”
Today, there is a lot of speculation about why people don’t read newspapers like they once did. A student sits on the edge of his desk in the stuffy confines of a college newspaper waiting for an editor to look over his story. He shakes his head as he is told of the urgency to move from print publication to the web. “I just like the way it feels in my hands,” he said quietly. When asked how many times a week he actually sat down to read a newspaper, the room became silent. The student’s reaction seems typically as we transition from print to the world of the web. Nevertheless, people are emotionally attached to things and rituals. Even though he may not really read a newspaper daily, his parents or grandparents probably did. There are many factors involved in why people, even journalism students, are slow in embracing new technologies, but as John Garvey muses, “The loss of newspaper readership may be traced to general indifference rather than to competition from the Internet, and to the feeling that we get enough news from the casual information provided by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert (not that there's anything wrong with that) or, God help us, from Twitter” (Commonweal, 2009). How much information is too much?
Others share Moore’s enthusiasm in the profession and are not hanging on entirely to traditional ways of connecting with audiences. For example, mobile technologies make keeping up and contributing to social media such as Facebook or Twitter easy. For journalists, a recent study found nearly 41 percent of media outlets offered readers links to Twitter, 48 percent provided journalist offered blogs, and more than 20 percent made podcasts and video available for users. In addition, devices such as smart phones, iPhone, MP3 players, and other wireless technologies allow both professional and citizen journalists and opportunity to break news when it happens.
As Susan Getgood argues, “Think about it. Obama’s presidential campaign. The Iran elections. The Indonesian tsunami. The use of social media to report these stories became a part of the story. I don’t see the same thing with the oil spill disaster. Social media is just one of the channels from which we get the news. No big deal.” Journalists have begun to understand the value of Twitter and other social media such as Facebook. Mallory Jean Tenore observes, “At its most basic level, Twitter is a networking tool that helps users keep abreast of what friends, or strangers, are doing. For news organizations, it is a resource for publishing work, communicating with other journalists and finding story ideas.” In a June 2009 Slate “Doubting Twitter” opinion Jack Shafer suggests people often use Twitter to keep an issue circulating after the spotlight of media attention has moved onward. Andrew Sullivan of the Atlantic Monthly proposed that Twitter is less about hard facts and more about mood. In fact, followers on Twitter, as illustrated by Mike Wise’s false tweets, can be misled and duped by the media. During the Iranian protests, mentioned in chapter one, government agents posing as journalists used Twitter to spread rumors and influence public opinion.
In a digital age journalists look for ideas and sources for stories in many places, but increasingly they are finding them online. Erica Lacono of PRweek suggests, “Heavier workloads, shorter deadlines, and increased competition are causing journalists to seek out new sources of information to help them get their jobs done, including social networks." According to Sacramento California’s Social Media Club, “Technology continues to revolutionize the way news is reported and consumed. Anyone with a smartphone, a blog or a Twitter account can break a story hours before the morning paper or evening news. In this new digital reality, media outlets are scrambling to find ways to use social media tools to reach and engage their audiences in meaningful ways. Journalists are live blogging and scanning tweets.”
Today, 95 percent of journalists use Google for sources and 47 percent use Wikipedia, PRweek reported in its 2010 Newswire Media Survey. Further, about 35 percent of journalists are using social media as sources of information. At the same time, when news breaks it appears as though social media such as Twitter, Facebook and blogs is the place to go. Increasingly, citizen journalists or non-journalists submit images, words, and video to mainstream news as eye witnesses to breaking news events. At the same time, when tragedy strikes, journalists mine through blogs, Facebook profiles, and Twitter feeds looking for leads. Recently the State Bar Association, an organization concerning the interests of lawyers across the country, weighed in on the importance of changes in the media environment. “Social media has truly become the defining tool for communication in the Information Age. Social media is the new mass media: it provides effective outlets for journalism, advertising, public relations, marketing, and other crucial communication purposes.”
We are living in an era of splintered-news – a time in which information moves from source to user in an instant without the user really knowing anything about the source. Credibility in the news, therefore, is called further into question when users feel duped or mislead by a source. In August 2010, Facebook estimated more than 500 million users were connecting on the site each month. At the same time, Twitter has more than 11.5 million members worldwide. Matt Baume of the Poynter Institute contends, “Social networks -- particularly Facebook -- are quickly becoming a key way to learn about breaking news, a phenomenon that Facebook is only too happy to embrace.” Baume suggests that many news outlets are developing new strategies in which to drive readership. Journalist Alison Gow agrees that reporters are beginning to use social networks in a professional capacity. For Gow and others, Facebook has become a place to promote work, seek feedback, gauge public opinion, and be engaged in personal/professional networking. Using social networking sites to gather information has become common practice in journalism. For Jason Spencer, “These aren't just venues for hormone-driven kids or garage bands waiting to be discovered. All kinds of people--millions of potential news sources--are corralled into their own corner of the Web.“ At the same time, many journalists also maintain profiles and join groups relevant to specific causes and topics.
Journalists are constantly redefining how they gather and use information they obtain online and off. They key to the process, as Simon Rogers of Datablog, suggests is in usefulness not effort. The primary function of journalism on the Web is to make information accessible and findable. Increasingly a greater amount of information is being found on sites like Facebook and Twitter. In addition, journalists respond to perceived needs. Many may not totally agree with the use of social media as the best place for their work, but the handwriting is on the wall. It’s not that print publications are fated to the dusty morgue of history, but that technology has afforded more layered and dynamic forms of communication. Some people associate emerging media such as social networking with the decline of literacy in society. Such rhetoric overlooks the fact that people actually have more content to read than any time in history. The more important issue here is in understanding the constraints on an individual’s time to make sense of and act on the information they access. As Danielle Maestretti points out in a 2009 Utne Reader essay, “The Internet has added a seemingly limitless supply of stuff to an information landscape already overcrowded with books, magazines, news reports, radio shows, and cable channels. As greater numbers of people avail themselves of online resources, however, few understand how it all works and what it all means.” For journalists, as Lawrence Vaughn notes, “Many news sources such as CNN have admitted that their reporters very regularly search Facebook for hot new stories. With over 500,000,000 active users on the social network, it's no wonder the press has been using it as a source of recent news.” A January 2010 survey conducted by George Washington University found, “Among the journalists surveyed, 89 percent said they turn to blogs for story research, 65 percent to social media sites such as Facebook and LinkedIn, and 52 percent to microblogging services such as Twitter. In addition, 61 percent use Wikipedia.” At the same time, 89 percent of respondents admitted that social media sources were slightly or much less reliable than traditional sources. One of the issues facing mainstream media today is the lack of control or the filtering of information flowing across the Internet. In the past, if someone wanted to look up some information about a specific topic or keep on top of current events they could go to a library, read a newspaper, listen to the radio, or watch television. At the library, a specialized group of people, librarian, would catalog information according to subject for retrieval by the public. The categories to be catalog are generally limited to key words, title, author, and so on. In the news business, editors were assigned to collect, report and present information according to sections such as breaking news, sports, features, business, and more. In this way information was kept in fairly tidy boxes so that people could find what they were looking for more or less. Then, along comes the Internet and all hell breaks loose. Cataloging information on nearly 3 million blogs worldwide, 300 million Facebook users and with more than 190 million people posting to Twitter, would be herculean if not impossible. During the aerial assault of Libya by allied bombers in 2010, Twitter users were posting nearly 18,000 messages every hour. For journalists, the handwriting is on the Web. Despite a decline in viewers and readers across all media platforms including network and cable television news, radio, magazines, and newspapers in 2010, The Project for Excellence in Journalism online news consumption online jumped 17 percent in 2011. Today, journalists are presented with new challenges including the ability to serve audiences while maintaining public confidence and credibility. The nature of news is also changing. For Vadim Lavrusk, “Social media has created a human filter for quality content. The social web, like the old water cooler, favors conversations around news and even in-depth journalism that may not otherwise receive the exposure it deserves.”
Journalism in Real-Time
Information in a digital age is no long a one-way affair; delivered directly to a subscriber’s doorstep of available with a spin of the dial. Today, people from around the world send bits and bytes of information in words, pictures and video to anyone who takes the time to view or read it. Interestingly enough, the majority of this information stream does not come from mainstream media, but from a form of user-generated content called “crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing refers to user-generated content that contributes to blogs, website, other social networking sites, and the mainstream media. Online Journalism Review editor Robert Niles describes crowdsourcing in journalism as “The use of a large group of readers to report a news story. It differs from traditional reporting in that the information collected is gathered not manually, by a reporter or team of reporters, but through some automated agent, such as a website.”
Some of the most common crowdsourced content includes Wikipedia and wikis, Twitter, blogs, Facebook and reader submitted feedback to mainstream media stories. When someone witnesses and earthquake, riot, fire, or anything counting for news, they can upload their accounts. Such reports are often looked at with suspicion by legitimate news sources, unless editors can verify the story or there are so many similar accounts being streamed at one time that corroboration of accounts occurs. The trend toward crowdsourcing has prompted a new form of live-journalism – a practice that mixes on-the-scene reporting with user-generated content. What user-generated reports often lack in quality is made up for in immediacy and access. The practice of obtaining information from eyewitnesses is hardly new. Reporters look for individuals who can provide a better sense of what happened. But now the rules have changed and reporters often find themselves catching up and verifying what has been already posted to the web – fact or fiction. In the ever-changing world of new media crowdsourcing is both a boon to journalism as well as a burden. With the “truth” at stake and so many players involved in generating content, mainstream journalism appears divided on striking the right balance.
According to Forbe’s magazine write Jeff Bercovici, crowdsourcing, curation, Facebok and Twitter are changing the basic structure of journalism. Bercovici suggests, “Institutions, experience and credentials are less important than they used to be; networks, individual enterprise and personal “brands” are far more so.” Arguably, however, these changes may very well be fomented by demographics and special interests. As more people contribute more original content to the web the media is forced to take notice. At the same time, Jeff Howe, author of the book “Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowed is Driving the Future of Business” contends, “Crowdsourcing projects are generally characterized as being the product of a few super-contributors and a mass of people who contribute some minor bits. Howe’s point of view comes from experience. True crowdsourcing, suggests Robert Niles, “Involves online applications that enable the collection, analysis and publication of reader-contributed incident reports, in real time.” Despite the fact that crowdsourcing appears to be the work of many, it still take the right people with the right skill to make it work in journalism. For example, one of the biggest issues with crowdsourcing in journalism today is the ability to organize and manage content in a reliable and efficient form. After many years of trial and error, new organizations are beginning to understand how to best utilize user-generated content effectively through aggregation and curation.
Shortly after a massive earthquake and tsunami struck Japan in February 2011, news of possible radiation leaks at several of the country nuclear reactors raised worldwide concern. In addition to the chatter and first-hand accounts of the disaster, people began to collect and organize data from real-time radiation sensors and other data sources outside governmental control. At the same time social media such as Twitter and blogs had a direct impact on getting governments to take notice and take action. Less than two weeks after the earthquake, for example, the U.S. Ambassador to Japan, John Roos received messages from his Twitter followers for help. Relief workers wanted Roos to help relocate more than 80 patients at a hospital out of harms way. As Steven Sternberg accounts, “Japan's disaster has spotlighted the critical role that social media websites such as Twitter, Facebook, Google, YouTube and Skype increasingly are playing in responses to crises around the world.” Originally designed for online socialization, social media is empowering people to share, images, audio and text in unfiltered or censored ways.
Alex Williams of ReadWrite Cloud, explains, “Crowdsourcing is a manifestation of that desire to contribute in a way that helps us understand and better define the overwhelming amount of data available.” Real-time data infrastructure platforms such as Pachube, (pronounced "PATCH-bay") links Internet enabled technologies such as sensors, radio frequency detection, smartphones and other devices through the Web. The use of connecting data from an array of sources and devices scattered across large area is part of a growing trend called “The Internet of Things.” Much like other terms emerging from technology jargon, such as blogging, The Internet of Things underestimates it far-reaching potential and importance to journalism.
Today people do much more than consume news – they are contributing to its creation through gathering and reporting information in real-time. For Stanley Palisada, “All it takes is a mobile phone camera or a computer to upload images and stories for mass distribution. This mutated form of reportage we call Citizen Journalism-- and its disciples, citizen journalists.”
As science writer Richard MacManus notes, “The Internet of Things” is “A network of “Internet-enabled objects, together with web services that interact with these objects.” The significance of crowdsourcing is evident in the Japan as hundreds of Geiger counter reading from across the country are collected, analyzed and shared in real-time with the world. William concludes, “The Internet of Things is a powerful way to collect radiation data and visualize it. The challenge over our lifetimes will be in interpreting this type of data so we can really understand what it means and what we should do about it when disasters strike.” Another example of the power of collaborative thinking on the Internet is the use of Wikipedia – a site where people contribute and edit information related to specific topics.
In another instance of the power of the crowd, a group of scientists from the Smithonsian Museum needed to identify more than 5,000 fish in its collection. Help was found a click away as scientists turned to Facebook. Within 24-hours, more than 90 percent of the fish had been identified by the crowd, comprised mostly of other scientists.
Citizen journalism, in a world of camera phones, texting, and the Internet, is as old a social media has been around – about a decade or so. Recently, when Shawna Redden and other passengers boarded Southwest flight 812 from Phoenix to Sacramento on April Fools Day they had no idea what to expect. Shortly after takeoff, a six-foot rip in the aircraft’s roof appeared, sending the more than 120 passengers and crew into emergency mode. Redden, an active blogger and Twitter user, pulled out her phone and documented the scene. Once the tweets and hit the Internet, the mainstream media and her followers sought her out to verify her account.
At the same time, Redden’s followers on Twitter reacted with messages of relief and questions about the incident. Similar to a 2009 plane crashed New York’s Hudson River, eyewitnesses using social media provide real-time accounts that are often unattainable by news organizations. The collaboration between people like Redden and the media is critical to the evolution of journalism. Increasingly, the trend is that news has become not only about facts but also about a conversation between reporters, sources and the public. Redden, a communication and journalism major, felt she had an obligation to share her experiences with the world. Redden notes, “Telling stories is how we live our lives, process experience, make sense of the world and, as I've learned again in the past 30 hours, develop connections with others. And pictures, well you know what they say.”
Using the name BluestMuse, Redden’s 140 character tweets were at re-tweeted or sent out by news outlets such as CBS. NPR, and the AP. At the same time, dozens of bloggers and hundreds of Twitter users were following and re-tweeting the saga. The writing style used by many Twitter users and bloggers is indicative of a shift in how people communicate with social media. While some posts and tweets are declarative and concise, others appear more personal and emotional.
Loss of cabin pressure, hands down the Scariest experience of my life.
Held my seat mate's hand and tried not to cry. Super loud! Flight crew was excellent. Stayed calm and checked on everyone.
Happy to be alive. Still feel sick.6 foot hole in the skin of the plane five rows behind me. Unbelievable.
Later, after safely arriving in Sacramento, Redden writes, “Can't sleep, too wired and the media keep calling.” Comments like this one suggest that the rip in the plane’s roof is only one part of the story. The other part is a subtext – one that focuses on the passengers who took it upon themselves to give personal accounts using social media. However, as David Briggs of the Columbia Daily Tribune notes the Internet is problematic for journalists in an “around-the-clock” news environment. Briggs notes, “The evolving — and more informal — forms of news-sharing have created a real-time stream of information.” Using Twitter in breaking a story, for instance, may run contrary to long-standing journalistic belief suggesting it is better to right and last in reporting the news than it is to be first and wrong. As we have seen misleading information and rumors not only circulate faster on the Internet they are also picked up by others without verification.
Most people think of Facebook as a place to keep in touch with family and friends. Facebook fits the perfect description of the web – the software is immediate, persistent, and ubiquitous. In recent years, Facebook as become an indispensable tool for reporters who can collect story ideas, find photographs for breaking news coverage, contact sources, and follow colleagues on groups. For Furhana Afrid, “Facebook, like many other social networks is evolving.” Afrid uses the site for story ideas, networking with other journalists and experts, as a platform to post content, engage with her audience, share news worth articles and studies, hunt and for jobs. In other others, Facebook provides journalists with many of the tools it would take several software applications to perform. More importantly, Facebook is now a mainstay of life on the Internet. Rick Dockai is a journalist who wears many hats. Docksai writes for a science and technology magazine as well as contribute articles on public policy and community news for other publications. “Facebook has helped me on all three beats,” Docksai writes. “When I'm looking for sources on a given topic, say "climate change" - I'll type climate change into the Facebook search app and pull up hundreds of groups and individuals involved in climate change.” In addition, the reporter sends out messages to possible sources for stories he is working on and finds this method far more effective than sending out mass e-mails. The best way to explain this sort of success with Facebook is in understanding the difference between a “push” and “pull” message on the web. When someone sends a message through e-mail, they are “pushing” it out to individuals who most likely have an inbox full of unsolicited spam. On Facebook, however, even the user puts the message out for a wide and general audience and then individuals who have opted to participate in a specific group can respond. This is called “pulling” selected messages – a process that yields a higher and much faster response rate. Docksai believes he is successful because, “With a Facebook message, they can see my face and see who I am, so there's more trust. Also, most people today still receive fewer Facebook messages per day than they do voicemails or e-mails, so the chances that they will get around to reading my Facebook message are higher than the chances that they will play back a voicemail message or respond to e-mail.”
As a reporter for the North County Times in San Diego, Californis, Dorrine Mendoza recently used Facebook or (FB), as it is known by followers. Mendoza explains, “For example, if we get the name of an accident victim, I will search for their name in FB for their profile, and to see if anyone has mentioned their name as a way to get in touch with surviving family, friends.” Further, Ted Schnell, a journalist working in the Chicago suburbs, followed the constant stream of tweets created by the city manager as he rode on a snowplow during a recent blizzard. “The bottom line,” writes Schnell, “Is that that tech-savvy city manager was putting out a stream of real-time information that was immensely valuable to the residents, who likely got more information from following the city manager on Facebook and Twitter than they did from my story -- although my information was broader, encompassing school closings and issues in outlying areas.” Jason Olson, a sports reporter also sees opportunity in social networking, "As a sports editor for a weekly, community paper Facebook has offered up a vast database of resources from specific teams, schools and of course several story ideas and/or background information.” Facebook, however, isn’t for everyone. There are many editors and reporters who are concerned that using a social network such as Facebook sets a dangerous precedent. As John Le Fevre points out on a recent discussion about how journalists use Facebook, “How do you verify that a page or profile on Facebook is genuine? Anyone can start a page and through up information that looks genuine. If you're getting your information from an official company/ government department website there's a greater chance the information is accurate, than off a Facebook page.” Another discussant wonders if Facebook posts can be treated as “on-the-record” and whether the courts can subpoena a reporter’s account? John Einar Sandvand, a Norwegian journalist studying the impact of digital media on society outlines five important trends – of which help to explain why journalists are turning to social media as tools of the trade. Sandvand suggests, localization, mobility, fragmentation, new business models, and that everything is social are the key trends affecting media today. All of these trends are not new, they just appear to be reaching critical mass.
Curation and Aggregation
People want news and they don’t really care where it comes from as long as it is accurate, timely and relevant to their lives. At least that’s what Sam Taute, a social media tech writer, thinks, “Readers don’t care about which news source scoops a story, they care most about which source gives them the most comprehensive picture of the day’s news. This has created a shift in the culture of journalism, in which writers and editors recognize the need to share with and be plugged into rival news sources.” The problem, as Mirna Bard points out is, “Social journalism often consists of more content curation than reporting, so this may hinder the depth of the information being reported. Also, many readers online don’t know the difference between content curation and content reporting.”
Current trends in newsgathering and reporting such as crowdsourcing, curation and aggregation have become part of the journalistic vernacular. At the same time, traditional “tried-and-true” methods of reporting remain critical to newsgathering. Today there are two types stories reaching audience – original content and re-proposed or aggregated content. Many news organizations resent having to pay reporters, editors, photographers to create unique content when news aggregators re-publish the work on their commercial sites without compensation. For example, YahooNews!, GoogleNews, the Drudge Report and the Huffington Post all aggregate the news from sources around the world. Very little of content is paid for by these sites, but the links do redirect readers to the original source. But why go to the original source when you can read the entire story on Google? There are dozens of web-based aggregators available to help readers organize content, YahooNews!, being the most popular. Some browsers such as Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox have built-in RSS (Really Simple Syndication) news feeders or aggregators. In addition, there are aggregators that feed news to users directly through email programs such as Outlook and Thunderbird.
C.W. Anderson, a teacher and researcher, defines news aggregators as “hierarchizers, interlinkers, bundlers, rewriters, and illustrators of web content.” News aggregators at mainstream news organization typically work on the periphery of the operation – monitoring, editing, organizing, and posting content to the web. Anderson suggests, “A news aggregator coordinates amongst a series of quasi-institutionalized (or entirely independent) content producers. The primary task of this news aggregator is, then, to build links between independently produced news stories, and to rank these bundled news stories according to a rapidly shifting criteria of importance, popularity, and newsworthiness.”
Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, had has a few feathers ruffled in his days but nothing seems to annoy him more than web search engines, blogs, and websites accumulate, or pirating content from news outlets that originally produced the content. In 2011, Keller published a commentary criticizing the online news media such as the Huffington Post, AOL, YahooNews!, and Google News for appropriating content and well as undermining and sensationalizing the news. Keller notes in his column, “We have bestowed our highest honor — market valuation — not on those who labor over the making of original journalism but on aggregation.” What Keller suggests here is that news aggregators, including many bloggers, understand that “words written by other people, packaging them on your own Web site and harvesting revenue that might otherwise be directed to the originators of the material.” Keller’s critics, and there are many, believe that to some extent all media aggregate or accumulate news from various sources. TechDirt’s Mike Masnick notes, “Journalism is a form of aggregation as well. After all, you're taking content from the people who actually make news, and aggregating it into a publication.”
In response, Arianna Huffington, who recently sold the Post to AOL, argues, “I think there is a convergence happening. There was a big debate over the last few years about whether the newspapers will survive, whether the future is going to be only online. And I think we are realizing now, increasingly, that online, purely online news operations like The Huffington Post are more and more adopting the most traditional, basic tenets of journalism.”
For Marisa Peacock, aggregation is undermining legitimate journalism. Peacock observes, “Considered to be the equivalent of outsourcing, aggregating news, is seen as a necessary evil. It helps to cater to the user's lack of time and attention and it helps to generate revenue. But with it comes the caveat that it cheapens the content.” The key to journalism’s future may very well be, as Peacock argues is that, “News aggregation shouldn't be looked at as an appraiser of content, but as a mechanism for pushing out content to a wider audience, who can then decide its value.”
Some critics maintain that the impact of social media on journalism actually devalues the work of reporters and editors. John Reinan contends, “What's gotten less attention is how the growth of the Web has devalued writers, photographers and other content providers. The model that's developing in today's communications business mimics the distribution of wealth in America: a few rich people at the top and a big group struggling at the bottom.“ Curation, it could be argued is a response to the vast amount of content available on the Internet, even if journalism become subsumed by user-generated content. “What does this mean for you as an information consumer?” Reinan wonders. “It means fewer professional journalists delving deeply into important topics — or even less important ones. It means you'll rely more on information from unpaid sources….”
Despite concerns of diluting the power of journalism, aggregation is also a tool for reporters. For example, GasBuddy.com, is a website that provides statistics and real-time prices for gas across the U.S. and Canada. As a form of aggregated news, users of the site report the cost of gas in their area. Reporters, then, can track and compare gas prices with other data to make stories more comprehensive and complete.
One of the primary conduits for content on the Internet is the use of RSS or “Really Simple Syndication” news feeds. For Richard Karpinski, “Few technologies have simultaneously been as popular and as confusing as RSS, the simple yet-still-far-from-mainstream platform for syndicating blog and other Web site content.” RSS feeds allow users to tailor their information needs into an easy-to-view formatting such as descriptions and headlines. For example, Google Reader is a free aggregator of websites users can customize. For journalists, being able to track stories across the web by an array of sources – mainstream and independent. Increasingly new software tools are being developed to help individuals, institutions, and organizations keep ahead of the deluge of information they wade through daily. SwiftRiver, for instance, is an opensource (free) software program designed to “understand and act upon a wave of massive amounts of crisis data,” especially within the first 24-hours after a disaster.” When journalists need to manage dozens of Twitter feeds, blogs, Facebook pages, news websites, and more, aggregation technologies are critical.
From Reporter to Curator
One significant shift in reporting the news in a world dominated by social media is keeping track of it all. How did the mainstream media learn of Redden’s tweets and pictures? It all begins with a tag, according to Technorati which specializes in online content, is “A tag is a keyword or short phrase that writers assign to articles to describe or identify the content: the subject matter, the people involved, the type of article, themes addressed. This helps people searching for a particular type of content to find articles using those tags.”
In this case, the media had already been alerted that the plane was in trouble. In newsrooms across the country, editors and reporters are scanning Facebook, Twitter, and blogs with tags that appear connected to the story. Once journalists get hold of a thread such as Redden’s they begin to tweet and post to their own news sites. News of the incident seems to spread like a virus on the web and Redden becomes not only a citizen journalist but also a celebrity.
In 2011, as anti-government protests rocked Egypt, National Public Radio’s senior digital media strategist Andy Carvin was busy redefining how news is managed. Carvin’s contribution to NPR’s coverage was to monitor, live-blog, “tweet” and capture moments of the on-going crisis in real time. Carvin is called a “curator” – a journalist who doesn’t necessarily create content but rather to find the best, most relevant, and stories on the Internet. Basically, Carvin’s job is to make sense of real-time events and pass the news along to others. At the same time as he is reading and tweeting, Carvin is also engaged with more than 4,000 of his followers on Twitter. According to the Atlantic Monthly’s Phoebe Connelly, Carvin’s “Twitter stream has been a non-stop curation of the Egypt protests. Carvin has turned himself into "a personal news wire for Egypt.” More importantly, Carvin’s activities as a curator act as a bridge between the people, communities, and the media around the world. Megan Garber of the Nieman Journalism Lab observes, “Carvin’s work cultivating sources and sharing their updates has turned curation into an art form, and it’s provided a hint of what news can look like in an increasingly networked media environment.” For Steven Rosenbaum, curation is a “a way to get value out of the information flood. But the role of the curator has been a contentious one, and not everyone has been on board with the concept.”
Serka Toto, a correspondent for the online journal TechCrunch notes, “Curation, the concept of filtering and organizing online content to separate signal from the increasing noise in social media, is currently one of the most discussed buzz words in the web industry.” At the same time, media analyst Jeff Jarvis, suggests journalists have “always curated information, collecting it, selecting it, giving it context in their stories. But now they have to do that across a much vaster universe: the Internet.” Moreover, on his blog, Terry Heaton comments , “The role of the curator in the news business is of vast importance today, and it will become even more important tomorrow. The "collection" that yesterday's editor had to display came from wire services, press releases, regional affiliations, group connections and, of course, her own staff.”
The job of a journalist, traditionally, is to report the news. However, as the Internet increasingly grows as a dominant source for information for many, curation and editing becomes even that more critical. For Lewis DVorkin, “Curation is in so many ways the next phase of edited journalism. Just as significant, curation-editing is fast transforming ‘who’ the media is.” DVorkin believes that news curators, reporters who sift through vast quantities of user-generated content, actually act as editors. Over the past few years, new software programs have been developed to assist reporters and the general public in curating, and aggregating content on the web. Chirpstory, Storify, and Curatedby are all services that provide users with the tools to filter and bundle online content. Still in its beta version, some of Storify’s users include PBS Newshour, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and Yahoo!News. Since Twitter produces enormous quantities of information from a wide range of topics and sources, curative sites will play an even greater role in the future of journalism. One proponent of curative journalism is Doc Searles who has introduced the concept of “giant zero journalism.” Searles believes that social media “puts everybody zero distance from everybody and everything else. And it supports publishing and broadcasting at costs that round to zero as well.” For example, Microsoft’s relevantly new search engine Bing now offers Bing Social, a site that accompanies a search with Twitter feeds and enhanced sharing features. The service lets users “plug into” real-time Twitter streams to as the company explains, “help customers make more informed decisions in search by surfacing the kind of information you can only get from your friends, often in real-time.”
Wading into the Stream
There are many ways to begin tracking social media sites in covering the news. As mentioned earlier, news feeds or RSS are the logical first step. Several news feeders, short summaries of headlines and stories accompanied by links, all reporters to skim and scan for content relevant to their interests.
Google’s free suite of software applications such as iGoogle, Google Calendar, Google Docs, and Google Reader are a good place to start. Many people are familiar with Google’s G-Mail without understanding that the search engine giants also provides an array of services including its own browser – Google Chrome.
iGoogle and Google reader appear to function in similar ways, but the former is really a home page with the RSS reader embedded into the template. From iGoogle it is possible to check email, a calendar, Facebook, Twitter, and a host of news sites. The panels for individual items such as Twitter can be moved around for better organization. The RSS reader, Google Reader is very effective and allows users to customize content. For example, if a user is interesting in tracking images and videos from Flickr, a massive photo storage website, they can add the RSS feed from Flickr to the iGoogle reader account. This way the user is not only tracking stories they are also keeping an eye on the millions of images made each day.
In addition to setting up an iGoogle homepage that accesses email, pictures, RSS feeds, and other features, Google News is customizable. In a review of the product, Jennifer Van Grove comments, “Google News is already a handy resource for staying informed on breaking news stories, but they’ve just become a news source that’s more dialed into your specific needs.” To set up a customized Google News link, go to the Google News main page and enter a desired keyword. Once a term, such as “space” is entered the personalized news entry will appear on the sidebar on the left hand side of the page.
Consolidating searches and keeping data organized is critical in this age of overload. The less places a user needs to go to keep on top of the subjects, themes, issues, events, and topics they are interested in the better. For journalists the practice of aggregating and curating news sources is becoming increasingly important.
Curation of news and information is really a convergence of pulling out and bundling relevant content with the desired aim of optimizing a user’s experience on the web. Even a simple query on a search engine such as Bing or Google is a form of curation. However, the problem for many users is that the search outcome is typically too broad. In fact, only 10 percent of people searching the web move beyond the first page. Abby Johnson of Web Pro News observes, “The subject of content curation also raises concern for content creators in terms of how their own content can get noticed in the midst of all the other content on the Web.”
In addition, another effective social media tool are social bookmarking sites such as Del.icio.us., Digg, Diigo, Newsvine, Slashdot, and more an 100 other services. Social bookmarking sites are unique simply for the fact that they are social and public. Users identify and select content by “tagging” stories with keywords. The tags are then made available to all users of the service and are also saved on the user’s account. The more people like a story (the more “thumbs up”) they receive from users, the higher they are placed on the website. Moreover, users can comment of stories and link to similar ones. Social bookmarking is another example of crowdsourcing, since the interests of the “crowd” drive the popularity or relevance of a story. Social bookmarking differs from the “bookmarks” tool located on web browsers such as Safari or Firefox. The social bookmarking sites can aggregate content by keyword and also summarize the search. In others words, bookmarking services act as an aggregator as well as a community forum. According to “Feed For All,” a RSS feed creation tool, “With Delicious, each "bookmark" of a specific webpage is seen as a vote of confidence. The more people who bookmark a specific webpage, the more credible the webpage is viewed.” At “Teaching Hacks,” a site aimed at helping teachers understand how to get the most out of the Internet, “Social bookmarking sites turns the hierarchical model upside down. In the past an individual might have saved their favorites or bookmarks on their local computer. Their bookmarks might have been organized under a few general headings. The social bookmarking web site allows individuals to store their bookmarks on the Internet and makes them accessible anywhere. For Paul Bradshaw of the Press Gazette, “The most basic function of bookmarking services is that they allow you to effectively manage “cuttings”, in other words online reports, webpages, and articles.” Bookmarking tools are effective for journalists because they can be tagged and organized with notes, Bradshaw notes. Also called “link journalism,” social bookmarking is a form of newsgathering with no limits on space.
Reporting from the Cloud
Among the many trends redefining journalism in an age of social media, mobile cloud computing is perhaps one of the most significant. Using mobile technologies such as smart phones and remote software applications, reporting is more immediate and based in real-time. Most people are familiar with cloud computing through GPS mapping in cars. Map programs are not stored in the GPS device itself but relay data through satellites and servers. A mobile cloud refers to how data is stored and processed outside the device itself. This means that the applications used by the device are not part of the device but are accessed through wireless Internet connections. Applications such as G-mail, Facebook, and Twitter rely on large groups of networked servers that are not tie to a local server network. A recent study by Juniper Research found mobile applications will increase 88 percent by 2014.
“With increasing use of social media, as well as improved technology for commenting on articles, the potential for a publication to cultivate an online community is growing,” Sarah Perez of ReadWriteWeb notes. Reporter-based resource sites such as DocumentCloud – a site that acts both as an application as a community of journalists sharing referenced documents and articles to the cloud. For Loren Steffy, a writer for the Houston Chronicle, “It's easy to see why cloud computing is catching on. For sheer convenience, it's hard to beat.” Steffy relied on G-mail to cover the Enron Scandal. She explains that G-mail acts “as a data storage vault for trial transcripts. I needed a program that could handle large files and that could be easily accessed by my laptop in the courthouse or my computers at home and in the newsroom.” In addition, Google Docs allows users to share and collaborate on articles through cloud-based computing. The downside to using such applications is that the author, by agreeing to the terms of usage with Google, technically gives up the legal rights to the contents they produce. Google uses the keywords found in the content to sell ads related to searches about that specific topic or issue. For example, if someone is sharing data about Ford Mustangs, Google can use the information to post advertisement about automobiles next to the search.
Journalists today must be tech-savvy and smart in using the tools of the 21st newsroom. At times, seeming more like entrepreneurs than old-fashion beat reporters, journalists must be able to gather, organize, collaborate, and disseminate information across a variety of platform. Reporters using social media such as news aggregation and curation have to co-exist with a never-ending stream of crowdsourced pseudo-journalism in the form of tweets, Facebook posts, and blogs. Understanding the function and practice of these tools ensures a higher level of quality journalism.