News in real time is journalism’s great challenge

news is a processMy colleague Jim Willi has an excellent piece on his blog about how he thinks social media “clobbered” traditional media in bringing information to light Sunday night in the killing of Osama bin Laden. Coming from Jim — a 40-year veteran of TV News — it’s a pretty profound admission. My family, too, sat together watching TV while sharing information we got via various social media terminals. In that sense, I suppose we were fairly typical.

At AR&D, we press our clients to move to a world of Continuous News, because, frankly, that’s what news has evolved to, and that shows no sign of abatement, only moving forward. We are criticized in some quarters for this — even mocked — and it is to those who disagree that I address the following.

NPR’s Andy Carvin has, since the revolution in Egypt, been the shining star of news in real time via Twitter. He’s a human marvel, aggregating many, many tweets and retweeting those that fit the narratives that he’s following. It is the purest form of real-time news. Carvin told those gathered at World Press Freedom Day in Washington Monday, “…in some ways, what I’m trying to accomplish is in a sense an oral history in real-time.” This is the essential problem for naysayers of Continuous News, and it’s an energy that won’t be stopped. The fundamental charge of newspapers has always been to “write the first draft of history,” and that very essence is being challenged today by millions of people with cellphones and social media. The day after bin Laden was killed, we learned of those who actually tweeted the raid in Abbottabad unaware of what it really was. That is news in real time, folks.

Technology will help the Andy Carvins of the world, and soon the only thing that can be rightly judged “news” will be what’s in the stream. We avoid this at our own risk, and I’m deadly serious about that. You can scoff and mock, if you wish, but I encourage you to examine what’s really taking place while you’re doing it. I don’t care so much about being right as I do about watching the demise of the business that was my life.

Mathew Ingram writes of social media being an “ecosystem” that has its own place in the news hegemony.

Looking at it as an ecosystem instead of a competition reinforces the point that all of these things feed into each other: TV reports are spread through Twitter, news that breaks on Twitter forms a part of TV and newspaper reports that try to summarize what has happened, and so on. As one person put it on Sunday night: “Twitter breaks news. TV covers it.” And leveraging the power of social media can help traditional news outlets find sources — like the guy who unwittingly tweeted about the bin Laden attack. Twitter and Facebook-style networks also helps the mainstream media distribute and promote their content — using network effects to their advantage.

I would love to believe that each has its place, but why turn away from real-time instead of exploring the ecosystem? Why should those of us in traditional media turn over the future to others?

Emily BellEmily Bell is director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. Formerly of the Observer and the Guardian, Ms. Bell is one of the most respected British journalists of our day. After the bin Laden event, she wrote “Real time, All the time: Why every news organisation has to be live.” Ms. Bell makes several remarkable statements, including this one: “Live is not ‘yet another thing’ for a working journalist to understand, it is the great journalistic challenge of our time.” I couldn’t agree more.

If you are related to the world of news, as opposed to the world of analysis, if you don’t have a strategy for live stories and reporting, then you have a very limited future. If you wish to have credibility even in the world of analysis and have no presence in the breaking news conversation then I would strongly argue that over time this is going to dramatically and adversely affect your brand.

…The live updating stream of thought and reaction is here to stay, and it will become more prevalent rather than less. If they haven’t already news businesses will need to prepare their journalists, their technologies and their interfaces to reflect this new world. It is not about ‘being first at the cost of being right’, it is about being there, or not.

So the idea of Continuous News — while we’re pioneering it — wasn’t born or nurtured in a vacuum. A great many of the best minds in journalism see what’s taking place and are doing what they can for those who will listen. What’s taking place with the real-time Web is far bigger than just journalism, however; it’s the new way of thinking for every Western institution in the new world.

In looking back at his seminal epic about the Web in 2004 (We Are The Web), Kevin Kelly told me that if could rewrite the thing, he’d add much more about the drift to real-time in the world of information. Kelly is a brilliant thinker whose recent book, What Technology Wants, is a deep journey into a culture that is changing forever.

Some are convinced that the old way is the only way, that completed, vetted stories are what makes “real” journalism and that the rest is just noise. They’re also convinced that that’s the way the people formerly known as the audience view things, and so we proceed by pouring our old views into the new wineskins of interactive media. The result is the arrogant taunting of real time, as our waxen wings soar oh so close to the sun of the new. Like Icarus, we’re so convinced of our own immortality that we risk everything by following only that which Madison Avenue will currently feed. This is so foolish in the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Our view of Continuous News is born of the Web. It has no legacy counterpart. It can’t be bolted onto brands that stand for something else online, because those will always default to the old. We’ll “promote” rather than inform, because that’s what we do. I’ve argued that TV stations are particularly well-suited to Continuous News, because it’s really just the daytime news-gathering process made public. Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm is prime time for news online, and that fits perfectly with the workflow of a TV newsroom. Our evidence from places that are executing the concept well is stunning; people love the idea of being kept informed as things are happening and dislike being forced to wait. The stream is a natural conduit for news and information.

Why can’t we see that?

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