Journalism: Learning from Obama
Adam Tinworth is hosting this month's Carnival of Journalism, with the question on the table: What can the news media learn from the Obama multimedia campaign?
Contributors so far have some excellent points on how to use the lessons to reach audience and to incorporate your audience into your journalism.
But I want to take a little different tack, to suggest that from the reporting side there are some other lessons to be learned, too, the most important of which is that reporting may never be the same.
Not to overstate the case, but the government, in all its forms, has been building a technological capacity far greater than the news media's for at least a decade. Obama's crew, I think, will finally understand how to use that technology to effectively bypass journalists and journalism. (Think of how that much-vaunted e-mail and text-messaging list could be used to effectively blunt the impact of any negative news. Start by simply releasing the news using these channels while the journos are tied up in the news conference.)
The additional potential dark side is that in this age when information is being vaporized into bits and bytes, it's a lot easier to have things get lost in the digital soup.
Journalists, and newsrooms, for all their vaunted video, audio and multimedia technology, remain largely in a paper-and-pencil age when it comes to news development and gathering. In some respects, this may not change -- journalism in many cases ultimately will come down to one journalist's relationship with one source.
But in other respects, it must, if journalists are going to be able to pluck the valuable out of that digital soup.
Why am I concerned? Because as I have gone around making a presentation on how to use new digital tools to stay connected, the response in some newsrooms and at conferences has been tepid at best in many cases and downright hostile in others (along the lines of how am I supposed to do my job with all this, to which I often have wanted to respond, this is going to be your job, dammit). Sure, there are many good examples of digitally savvy journalists -- and several projects designed to help, such as Spot.us, newassignment.net and the controversial proposal by the New York Times and ProPublica for $1 million of Knight money to put thousands of "foundation documents" online. But there also are too many reactions like the above. So some suggestions:
- Learn what crowdsourcing is, how to manage it and how to use it. Understand Twitter and how it is a newsgathering as well as a distribution tool. It will be critical in coming years to have multiple sets of eyeballs -- and brains -- helping you out and tipping you off. Learn how to harness the power. (In other words, see social networks not just as a place to sell your wares, but as a vital place to help find the information you need.)
- Have some alacrity with Excel or another spreadsheet program. Know how to extract data from PDFs (a common tactic in some government agencies these days in an attempt to lock up the data so it can't be analyzed). If you are a bit more adventurous, learn how databases are constructed and how to get data out of them.
- But more important, know what to ask for. Think digitally, not ink on paper. (That mode of thinking is one of the best lessons journalists can take away from the Obama campaign.)
- Understand what the semantic Web is and why it is important to you. (Hint: If everything is machine readable and linkable then someday you are going to find yourself needing to use these tools to track down information.)
- Learn a bit about mapping and geocoding, not so much to present information but to learn how to get it. Again, much good information is in government files of this type, and even more so will be in the future.
- And, of course, learn how to use RSS feeds and feed readers and similar resources to save yourself time and extend your reach.