In seeking to explain to students at Columbia how understanding networked approaches to journalism work, I assign Rusbridger’s Cudlipp Lecture as a starting point for students to understand the possibilities of this in their own work. In a similar vein, New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger recently spoke of the power of a networked and web-centric approach to Times journalism, spotlighting the new techniques reporters are using to widen their audience and bring relevance to their reporting. There are many examples too that lie outside The Guardian and The New York Times—Andy Carvin at NPR, the Ushahidi work in the Kenyan elections, the contribution of the Global Voices blog network, ProPublica, dozens of local efforts, including the Journal Register titles (now Digital First media) for which as Starkman points out, a number of we FON folk consult. All in some way conform to a template that has its roots in the Future of News consensus, each of which has modified it to produce powerful journalism and information for communities.
Dean Starkman’s analysis of the situation is selective, but as this an essay about ideas, that is permissible. His conclusion, though, contains assertions that cannot really be allowed to pass unchallenged. He says:
‘The cruel truth of the emerging networked news environment is that reporters are as disempowered as they have ever been, writing more often, under more pressure, with less autonomy, about more trivial things, than under the previous monopolistic regime.”
The suggestion that the Internet has “disempowered” journalists is just not true. In a global context it is willfully wrong. But even in the narrow context of journalism in the US, to say that individual journalists are disempowered by a medium that allows for so much more individual reporting and publishing freedom is baffling. If this case is made in the newsroom context of reporters having too much to do, then maybe this is an institutional fault in misunderstanding the requirements of producing effective digital journalism. Unlike the pages and pages of newsprint and rolling twenty-four-hour news, there is no white space, no dead airtime to fill on the Internet. It responds to 140 characters as well as to five thousand words.
The prejudice at the heart of the piece is best summed up in one line about how FON ideas have undermined reporters in their work by requiring them to perform a series of tasks, including to “keep in touch with you via Twitter and FB constantly instead of reporting and writing.” There it is: “instead of reporting and writing.” The opening of electronic ears and eyes is not a replacement for reporting. It should be at the heart of it. And if it is not, then the institutions that Starkman laments might be to blame.
We started with the story of Ida Tarbell, so it seems fitting to finish with an anecdote that casts a different light on the consensus and its contribution to journalism. In class on Monday I had set students a task of defining a goal around finding an audience or making connections with available digital tools. In reporting back, one student described her exercise to rapt colleagues. In seeking to follow a serious investigative story in a chaotic regime outside the US, she had focused on tweeting links and finding sources on social networks that were of relevance to that country and story. One link led to another and another. Her diligence and work were rewarded with a random contact through Twitter, which in turn led to chance meeting in New York (yes, real shoe leather was expended), and her obtaining a number of key contacts and numbers in the administration she was reporting, new leads in a story that is neither trivial nor easy.
In her words: “It is really incredible, to be able to get this access, this quickly, is really something I would never have imagine was possible.” This winter break she will follow the story, honoring the Tarbell tradition, using the methods of the networked way.