The conversation goes on, with or without us

Sarah HillI got a tweet from Sarah Hill, anchor for KOMU-TV in Columbia, Missouri yesterday that says much about the current state of journalism and how social “media” is impacting the institution. We’d been exchanging direct messages about their coverage of the horrible disaster in Joplin, when she wrote:

The telethon has raised $175K thus far and it doesn’t start til Thursday.

The people of mid-Missouri are coming together to raise money for the relief effort, and Twitter, texting and Facebook have made it easy for people to connect with the cause. This is an excellent use of social media by a TV station in trying to make a difference, but it says even more about their recognition of the reality that is journalism today, that it’s no longer about us. We wish them well on the telethon.

Here’s the thing: fundraising efforts are also taking place beyond what a traditional media company is and can do, as everyday people pick up the cause and pass it along. This is the “Great Horizontal” of which Jay Rosen speaks, that remarkable new empowering of the people with which, sooner or later, those who practice professional journalism must come to grips. The question for the pros is this: do the people really need us anymore, or perhaps it’s better to ask “How can we as pros best fit into this conversation?” There are those who say that the pros should “lead” the conversation, but City University of New York professor and author Jeff Jarvis isn’t one of them.

I think the conversation is happening all around us, with or without the journalists. I teach now that it’s the role of the journalist to add value to that conversation: verification, debunking, facts, reporting, context, platforms, teaching…. The late James Carey defines the role differently. As Jay Rosen explains in the Carey Reader: “The press does not ‘inform’ the public. It is ‘the public’ that ought to inform the press. The true subject matter of journalism is the conversation the public is having with itself.”

But I’m seeing that news organizations think it is their role to lead the conversation (they set the agenda), allow the conversation (you may now comment on our story, now that it’s done), and judge the conversation (see Bill Keller’s sniffing at vox polloi).

…that is the reflex of the journalist: to control the conversation.

In a conversation with Michael Arrington this week (see below), Jarvis clarified the concept:

The conversation goes on without us. We in journalism thought the conversation needed us. That’s not the case anymore. It’s end to end, like the Internet. We can add value to that in all kinds of ways. We can vet and find good people and find nodes and networks, and give perspective to journalism.

This is why the word “curation” must be a part of our everyday language and practice. Here’s a series of images that I use to convey the concept. It begins with the output of a traditional news organization on a 24-hour, horizontal scale. “Real time” is what’s being outputted horizontally. That line moves across the horizontal line as the clock ticks. This is continuous news.

news in real time

This would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that millions of others are outputting what’s important to them at the same time. So news in real time doesn’t just refer to our horizontal line; it includes everybody’s.

other streams are added to ours, but the vertical slice remains

The opportunity, therefore, for “new” journalism is the ability to slice through all of those horizontal lines and makes sense of it all for others. This is what Jeff is talking about, and any attempt to exclude those other streams is not journalism in the 21st Century. Technology will help with the task, but it involves human judgment at some point.

news in real time

We’ve come a long way since the days of criticizing “citizen journalists” in understanding what’s evolving before our eyes with news in the network. People aren’t stupid and no special group has a license on the practice of journalism. We all want to know what’s going on, and as the events in Missouri confirm, participate in what we can do to fix things that are broken. This may whack the fatted calf of professional journalism, but that’s a small price to pay for a more involved citizenry (and electorate). The more, the merrier, and while it does present challenges (certainly), we’re all better off for it in the long run.

The window for mass media to carve out a profitable role within this new hegemony is still open, but it will be closing slowly as more and more smart people get into the curation act. Traditional media companies still have the local muscle to block such efforts, but we must be smart, and that begins by acknowledging that the news conversation IS going on, with or without us.


  1. You know Terry, someday I’d like to pick your brain about Govt. role in all this — and by that I mean we are producers of content too. This week I’ve spent a tremendous amount of time putting out information about what we are doing to assist Joplin — feeding it all to local media as possible fodder for their stories. I’d like to better understand how to apply this real-time model to our own output of information. I feel like we are trying but since we still are suppliers to the trad media, I think we are stuck in their model. How to break out withOUT alienating them but also more directly reaching our constituents who pay the taxes that pay our salaries. FYI a Joplin tornado FB page already has more than 150K likes of friends.

  2. Love to help, Vince. Just say when.

  3. Such a great point. They really don’t need us unless we add value, perspective, focus. I like to let viewers tell me what the hot story will be on a given day by their comments and posts- but I see some in our industry decide in a news meeting what the hot topic will be and push that out on social media. I am always amazed at how different my own perception is of what a hot conversational story will be or how I think viewers will react to a given story. Almost always viewers surprise me. Top down approaches can miss so much. Imagine how relevant and interesting our TV newscasts would be to viewers if we actually spent significant time on Facebook and Twitter figuring out what they really care about, and what is really going on. It’s simillar to stations having OLD research and ignoring the real time reality feedback on their social sites of what their viewers now WANT to see, instead quoting back to the old “research” that contradicts their new reality.

  4. Which Amy is exactly why I over the last couple of years have been following you more…I never really paid much attention to the local news until social media. I feel like your down here with us and involved in the conversation and not just trying to push out what your station wants you to push.

  5. Wow, important to know that matters to YOU Ben, thanks for the post. It makes my job far more engaging and enjoyable to be with you, then isolated in the studio. Appreciate you.

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