Monday, July 27, 2009

Twitter - angst over 'is it journalism'

In "The Trouble with Twitter," her angst-filled essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Melissa Hart perfectly illustrates the debate, the angst -- and, frankly, the disconnect of not understanding that everything need not be a "story."

Until we get past this little hangup, I'm afraid that journalism/journalists just risk being deemed even more anachronistic and, ultimately, irrelevant.

A few months ago, I sat across a cafe table from a local newspaper editor and watched the bewilderment on his face as he told me how the Internet has altered print journalism at his own paper. Recently some of its readers complained when they heard through word of mouth about a car accident in town but couldn't find updates on the newspaper's Web site. "We told them they had to wait until we'd investigated and could post a full report," he said, "and they demanded to know why we couldn't just Twitter the information right then." The answer, of course, is that 140 characters gives reporters just enough room to note who, what, where, why, and how in the most basic terms. That may be news, but it's not a news story.
Exactly. Or as the audience might say to Hart and this editor: "Can you hear us now?" Some things will simply be "news." They won't be "news story." The 5W's and H may be all that's needed by your audience (and absent your finding out some major new development - such as it was the mayor in the car). Those cases are the ones ripe for database journalism.

Why do we have so much trouble getting our heads around the idea that you use the best tool for the job you need to do? If you want a hole, use a drill, not a screwdriver. Other businesses get it. Why do journalists continue to cling to the idea that all they have is a screwdriver? The problem with that, of course, to continue the metaphor, is that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Thus, to too many journalists, everything has to look like a "story," instead of acknowledging that much of what they do is not story but factual exposition, and maybe if they stripped those factual expositions down, they'd actually have time to do stories -- you know, those things that people really do like to read, with natural, not forced, beginnings, middles and ends, and usually with some kind of complication and resolution that gives insight to the human condition or is just a "good read."

This unthinking fealty to "story" is illustrated still further in the next graf of Hart's piece:
"We're talking about laying people off," the editor added, "but hiring a full-time Internet reporter. And that person will Twitter."
Well, d'uh. Anyone think of trying to take one of those layoffs and train them to be a well-balanced journalist, one who knows when to Tweet and one who knows when to lay on the words. Why does there need to be this forced disconnect, emphasized by the artifice of having to hire an "Internet reporter"?

I worry that microblogging cheats my students out of their trump card: a mindful attention to the subject in front of them, so that they can capture its sights and sounds, its smells and tactile qualities, to share with readers. How can Twittering stories from laptops and phones possibly replace the attentive journalist who tucks a digital recorder artfully under a notepad, pencil behind one ear, and gives full attention to the subject at hand?
Well, that would be where you, as the professor, come in. The only way it cheats them of anything is if you let it. Instead, teach them when microblogging is advantageous and when it gets in the way and is downright rude. I suppose some j-profs were saying the same thing when the dastardly tape recorder meant they no longer had to concentrate on writing all that stuff down because everyone knows you pay better attention when you write it down, right. Or when the telephone came along because ... oh, you get the idea.

Still, as a method for reporting the news, Twitter strikes me as ridiculous. It begs the question: What is news? Is it a stark factual sentence, or a well-crafted story steeped in sensory details, heavily dependent on the reporter's presence at the scene?
Hmmm, a non-question. Both have a place. You could even argue that one is "news" and the other "journalism. " You could, but it'd be a waste of time. (We'll leave for another time the debate about "begs the question" from a j-prof.)

Journalism is not a zero-sum game. It's not if you do one, you can't do the other. You do whichever is best for the circumstances at hand -- and sometimes you do both - or more.

If it's true that writers read in the genres they most enjoy crafting, then give me a painstakingly crafted investigative piece any day—a provocative story that challenges the reader to accompany the reporter on a path from question to revelation. Give me The Boston Globe's Michael Paulson and his incisive coverage of the election of the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. Give me Sonia Nazario's heartbreaking series on a Honduran boy's illegal journey to the United States, printed in the Los Angeles Times.

Likely I'm being woefully short-sighted in my response to reporting via Twitter. Perhaps a news article really can be crafted, haikulike, in 140 characters.

My hat is off to those who can do it. I just don't want to read it.

So don't. It doesn't meet your needs. It meets others' needs. And, no, a news article can't be crafted in 140 characters because it is not a news article! It is a Tweet. Nothing more, nothing less. A basic version of the facts. Stop confounding the two.

Kudos to Hart on one thing - her digital photo scavenger hunt where students had to go into a neighborhood, take a series of pictures and actually talk to people to learn about them and their concerns. It was the right tool for the right time and purpose. See, that isn't so hard, is it?

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At 7/29/09, 1:15 PM, Blogger Kassandra Troy said...

Few professions seem to be as progress averse as journalists! Luddites, to a man!


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