Social Media and Journalism
I'm sitting on a panel this week on social media and the future of journalism being sponsored by the Columbia Social Media Club. It should be an interesting time with the likes of Dan Conover and Jeff Elder.
The organizers sent out a bunch of questions, and Dan's already expounded on his in a "virtual interview" (figuring that we probably won't get around to all this), so let me take a crack at some of mine here, too:
- How is the institutional knowledge of a newsroom different than the collective knowledge of your readers?
But it's also hard to ignore the value of the newsroom veteran who remembers the mayor's second cousin's son's daughter is the wife of that contractor who seemed to get that sweetheart contract out of nowhere. Unfortunately, a lot of that institutional knowledge has walked out of or been shown the door in the past decade. That's compounded by newsrooms' inability to effectively capture most of the information they gathered anyhow. Do you know any other business that leaves 90 percent of its raw material on the shop floor?
Part of the challenge is how to effectively acknowledge and use the audience to broaden and deepen our journalism while understanding that the institution does not give us license to think we are delivering tablets from the mountain.
It's a tough nut for journalists because for decades the reinforcement has been institutional. "Credibility," such as it was, was institutional, not transactional. (In other words, the fact that you were from the local metro in itself imbued a certain gravitas and credibility. Now, it's a "show me" situation where more and more that credibility comes from whether what you've done holds up to scrutiny.) Awards were - and still largely are - institutional: journalists judging journalists. You don't have a "People's Choice" awards for journalism, and even if you had, chances are they wouldn't have carried much sway in the industry.
- When it comes to the public’s role in journalism, can the public be trusted without introducing bias?
It is questions like this that leave us mired in the journalistic equivalent of "I'm great, you suck." And that leaves us unwilling or unable to consider the nuances and multifaceted nature of things. Sure, the public has biases. Among them is the tyranny of the majority (which is why we have set up institutions whose jobs ostensibly are to protect the minority from the majority). The public also has valuable information and insight. But it takes work to filter it and evaluate it, hard work.
- How do community bloggers fit into the larger role of online sites and media companies?
- What could be the possible role of the hyper-local news bureau?
But in a city like Columbia, I'm not sure you have the resources to set up and manage such a system. First of all, the neighborhoods are smaller (maybe not geographically but in population) than in those larger cities. Second, If you use the old 90-9-1 rule, that means you probably have darn few people willing to help cover those areas. And then there's the reality of how much of a news stream you have coming out of those areas.
For instance, some of the students in my public affairs reporting class are covering a neighborhood, Washington Park, just south of The State newspaper. No one covers Washington Park, a lower middle-class enclave wedged in a commercial/industrial area. But in just a couple of weeks down there they've found that the neighborhood may lose the eponymous park that is the center of the community. And residents want speed bumps because they say speeding cars threaten their children - but officialdom keeps passing the buck (one of my students is getting a schoolin' on the arcane S.C. "state highway" system under which cul-de-sacs can be designated state highways). Now, those are good stories, but you're not going to have enough going on there to really develop a hyper-local presence. Do you throw several neighborhoods together? Well, maybe, but it's not like highly contiguous urban areas, so can you find a person or two in those scattered neighborhoods to really watch all of them effectively; and then how do you manage this network?
Hyper-ocal is an organic thing, really parallel to social media. It has to grow naturally and be nurtured. There may be a few areas where it will work; you may just have to monitor the rest to see if they ever reach "critical mass." In the meantime, it may be worth your while to reach out to other institutions such as schools, nonprofits, etc., that might be able to help with coverage or at least monitoring.
- What roles in the newsroom could papers crowd-source? Would a micro-payment service work for rewarding help?
Crowd-sourcing, hyperlocal, they're both there to be used when they make sense, and not used when they don't.
- Do we miss the point of hyperlocal? Should we be approaching communities from the ground up?
When you approach communities from the top down, you seek to define them using all the preconceived notions and outside socio-economic measures at your disposal. When you do it from the ground up, you have to listen, watch, smell and hear first.