1 November 2013 Comments Off

How I became the dullest part of the health reform story

As a longtime journalist, I’ve always wanted to be on the front of The New York Times.

It finally happened Friday, but it wasn’t a report I edited or wrote. I was a subject in a story about Americans whose health insurance policies were being discontinued as a result of the Affordable Care Act and had to find new ones.

The article was headlined, “When Insurers Drop Policies: Three Stories.” My “story” was the shortest one–two paragraphs out of 32–probably because it was the least interesting. After all, I had no serious difficulty finding a new policy, the Washington state insurance exchange worked well after some initial glitches and I’ll be paying less for the new policy.

The other stories had more drama. One subject was angry — angry that his insurance company discontinued his policy and offered another one that was much more expensive and angry that he had trouble signing onto Heathcare.gov to search for other options. The other subject was frightened by the future  and lamented  that she was having trouble finding information about her options.

I have no problem with my dealings with the Times on this story. I responded to a tweet from the Times in my Twitter feed a week or so ago asking people to tell about their experiences using the health exchange websites to look for coverage. I answered a very well-done questionnaire and sent it back. A few days later, I got a call from a Times reporter, who very ably conducted a thorough interview and followed up via email. And I’m always happy to put my little town of Birch Bay, Wash., on the map.

Much journalism today — and the Times is better than most — is framed in a “he said, she said” template in which conflict and anger are essential ingredients. Maybe no one would read the stories otherwise. I know a long  tale of my navigating the health insurance exchange would probably put even me to sleep.

Still, I’m not sure the conflict narrative is the best way to get to the truth of a complex subject like health care reform. Interestingly–to me, anyway–the accompanying graphic  in the Times about why some people’s insurance was being discontinued shed a lot more light on the subject. It was beautifully done.

Another example of how to cover a contentious subject without viewing it through the conflict prism is “Voices of Coal,” from EarthFix, a partner with Oregon Public Broadcasting. This multimedia report on coal port projects in the Pacific Northwest  presents the first-person perspectives of nine people who have widely varying opinions on a highly divisive subject.  Instead of focusing on the conflict of environmentalists versus business interests, it shows there are many sides of the story, not just pro and con. You might call it “stakeholder storytelling.”

Health care reform is a contentious and complicated subject that breeds conflict. After all, we’ve been debating it in this country since the New Deal — and before. I’m sure we’ll be debating ways to tell the story for a long time to come.



17 April 2013 Comments Off

Balancing speed and editorial judgment

There’s a great piece by Cory Bergman, general manager of Breaking News.com, on how his organization balances speed and editorial judgment.

Like many, I use Twitter as my “wire service” when news breaks–and it’s much faster than the wire services I’ve worked for, Reuters and The Associated Press. However, as was clear in the Boston bombing story, there’s a lot of chaff with the wheat, as rumors and misinformation crowd into my Twitter feed.

That’s why it’s so important to choose the people and institutions you follow with care. And that’s why Breaking News.com, among other trusted sources, is an important part of my Twitter feed and a go-to spot for fast, reliable breaking news.

Bergman puts it well:

At Breaking News, our goal is to balance speed with an editorial filter, keeping rumors at bay while incorporating hundreds of sources.  With the Boston story, we’re not quite as fast as Twitter (the crowd is always faster), but we provided a lightning-fast stream of coverage that avoided or downplayed nearly all incorrect reports, including a third explosion, a bombing at the JFK Library and a Saudi suspect in custody.

Here’s our technique: moments after the explosions, our editors tracked dozens of Boston news sources — news organizations, officials and eyewitnesses — looking for a new report on the story.  Just as on-the-ground news organizations compare sources before reporting new information, our editors compared these new reports with coverage from other news and official sources.

In this era of the constant, nonstop news cycle you have to have speed to compete, but you don’t have to check your journalist brain at the door. As Bergman writes, “there are red flags we have learned along the way,” and journalists who heed those flags, while reporting and publishing as quickly as possible, are the ones I trust.

As I’ve said before, news organizations are still locked into a kind of speed arms race, where scoops are measured in seconds or less. But surveys show the public isn’t all that impressed. Last year, a study found that only six percent of respondents believed being first to report a story was the most important factor in choosing a source for election news.

I don’t blame social media when exaggerated or just plain wrong information is reported. As we saw in the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act, mainstream television reporters were quite capable of being very fast–and very wrong–in their reporting without any help from Twitter. But the speed that is enabled by social media makes it all that more important that journalists look for those red flags and use those reporting skills and skeptical minds–only faster.


30 November 2012 Comments Off

Leveson: Right diagnosis, wrong prescription

The long-awaited report by Lord Leveson into the unethical and illegal behavior by some of the British press does a good job of diagnosing the problem, but the prescription is dangerous.

The report rightly concludes that “there has been a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories,” with little or no regard for the damage such journalism has caused; a “reckless disregard for accuracy” at the now defunct News of the World; and an uncomfortably cozy relationship between the tabloid press and the police. As for the hacking of phones and illegal access to medical records, Lord Leveson writes:  ”The evidence drives me to conclude that this was far more than a covert, secret activity, known to nobody save one or two practitioners of the ‘dark arts’.”

However, the remedy proposed–an independent, self-regulating body created under a new press law–is a dangerous and unnecessary step. Such a law would open the door to more forceful government regulation of the press by future governments that may not like what’s being reported.

Culture Secretary Maria Miller put it well: “What we’re concerned about is creating amendable legislation that could in the future give parliament the opportunity of stopping reporting on certain areas.”

I’m writing from the United States, where the Constitution’s First Amendment enshrines freedom of the press–and in the past two centuries we’ve had lots of reprehensible journalism. Yet we’ve also often had  journalism that has gone a long way toward saving the republic. It  wouldn’t have happened with a government-regulated press. Infringing on the vigorous independence of the British press, which has often spoken truth to power, is a dangerous precedent for the country that gave us the Magna Carta.

And it’s not necessary. There are laws against information theft, phone hacking and bribery of public officials. It’s time for the police to vigorously enforce those laws against news organizations that violate them. And it’s time for the British media to create a truly independent watchdog. Perhaps the threat of legislation will spur them on.

It’s also disturbing to see the distinctions the Leveson report drew between the “press” and the “Internet.” While detailing the appalling ethical lapses of the print media, Lord Leveson speaks of the “ethical vacuum” of the Internet. Venal and unethical men and women operate in print media, just as they do in broadcast and digital media. So do honest, idealistic and ethical men and women. Ethical behavior is not determined by  the medium in which a journalist operates.


27 August 2012 Comments Off

Some birthday musings

Another birthday. Another year. Another opportunity to reflect on a career in journalism.

At the risk of self-indulgence (OK, this is self-indulgent), some high points and a low point.

Let’s get the low point out of the way.

  • Being a working journalist has essentially been one big high for me and regrets are mainly trivial. There’s really only one that keeps me awake at night: In 2003, when I was editor-in-chief of MSNBC.com, not recognizing early on and then not being able to effectively counter the media cheerleading for the Iraq War. Like many American journalists at the time, I couldn’t find my professional skepticism when I needed it.

High points:

  •  Tom Glocer, former CEO of Reuters, often spoke eloquently about how the world would be a poorer place without the international news organization he headed–and he was right. At this time of extreme polarization –particularly in the United States–a news organization with a global perspective that prides itself on the pursuit of truth (not just facts), independence and freedom from bias has never been more needed. As ethics and standards editor, I was particularly happy to be able to make freely available to the public the Reuters Handbook of Journalism, the principles and practices Reuters journalists live by. I’m forever grateful to David Schlesinger, former Reuters editor-in-chief, and Chris Ahearn, former president of the Reuters Media Division, for bringing me into this organization, which is so much more than “the wire.”
  • And speaking of “the wires,” working as a desk supervisor for the Associated Press Washington Bureau in the early ’90s was a lesson in how news really was covered. In this age of social media, where anyone with an Internet connection can be a publisher and where no story, however granular, goes unpublished, it seems quaint to recall a time when, if the AP or Reuters didn’t cover an event you wouldn’t hear about it. It was fine for national newspapers or broadcasters to “have a take” on a story or cover it “across the grain,” but “the wires” provided the grain.
  • I joined the digital age in 1996, when I joined MSNBC.com as a producer. At the time, I didn’t really know what a producer did, but a strange band of journalists who could occasionally think like software developers and software developers who knew how to enable journalists came together in Redmond, Washington, and changed journalism forever.
  • Now that I’m working for myself, it’s a pleasure to have time to get to know the next generation of journalists. As I’ve spoken  to university classes of aspiring journalists, it’s been clear that the future of the profession will be in some good hands. They are better educated than ever and have the most powerful news gathering and news distribution tools in history. But most importantly, they see journalism as a calling, a vocation, a mission. They are skeptical but not cynical, idealistic but not naive. If they could just remember to put the punctuation inside the quotation marks.
Enough. It’s time to enjoy the rest of this eventful summer.



25 June 2012 Comments Off

Digital media: Fertile ground for community newspapers

At a time when daily newspapers in North America are struggling, the  importance and vitality of community journalism was stunningly clear after the recent arrest at a U.S.-Canada border crossing of a man sought in a triple murder. Travis Baumgartner, accused of killing three Edmonton, Alberta, armored-car co-workers and fleeing with $330,000, was apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials when he attempted to cross the border between Aldergrove, British Columbia, and Lynden, Washington.

The first reports of the arrest came on Twitter, from regional and national Canadian correspondents following the story. The next morning, I found good coverage of the story on the websites of the Canadian dailies. No surprise there, since it was a huge story in Canada. What did surprise me was that 18 hours after the dramatic Saturday arrest, The Bellingham Herald, the U.S. daily that serves the border region, still had not covered the story.

The most substantial coverage of the event in the area where it occurred was on the websites of the community newspapers on the Canadian side of the border, the Aldergrove Star and Langley Times.

Community newspapers, often weeklies, have traditionally had a close relationship with the communities they serve, with stories that didn’t make the radar screens of area dailies. Now digital publishing — especially social media — offers community papers an opportunity to draw even closer to their audiences–and to transcend publishing schedules.

I spoke with Marco Morelli (@MMorelli on Twitter), a digital media specialist with Black Press, which owns 75 community newspapers in British Columbia, including the Aldergrove and Langley papers. Morelli, who trains the company’s editorial teams in social media, joined the company four years ago as part of the new media team.

He said the solid coverage of the border arrest was no accident. While he said the company specifically does not see itself as following a digital-first publishing strategy, there is major  support for an expanded digital presence.

“It’s been a huge culture shift” for the company’s 270 reporters and editors, he said, but “in training we show how the Web can be used to gather and share information and that it’s OK to build your story online.”

He also encourages journalists to have a larger social media presence on Twitter and Facebook, because it’s good for the company and staff.

“We encourage staff members to have their own accounts so they can build their brands as journalists,” he said, and “we tell them to bring your own personality to the table.”

That’s good advice for community news outlets that want to become even more relevant to the people and places they cover. I would go further: A digital-first strategy can pay off for both a community paper and its audience in a number of ways.

  • Public service. When the flood comes or the snowstorm blows in, the trusted community news source can use digital media to quickly get the word out on emergency services, evacuations, school and road closures and how to get help. Twitter is a great way to use bursts of information that can serve, warn and reassure a community. And make sure there’s a mobile component, since cell phones may be the only way the audience can tune in.
  • The big story. As we saw in the border arrest, community papers can transcend their publishing schedules and fill in the gaps that national and regional dailies leave.
  • Even more personality. Community papers often have owners, editors and journalists who are well known to their audiences. Inviting readers to share editorial content on Facebook and follow their favorite reporters on Twitter and developing Web-specific content can enhance that.
  • Even more community connection. Weekly newspapers have always been places that cover communities more microscopically than dailies. Graduations, military postings, weddings, births and obits and photojournalism. A digital-first strategy will free you from the confines of time and newsprint–and offer a venue to publish more material produced by the community.
The community paper product probably isn’t going away. It’s still a great way to present longer form journalism and feature photos–and lucrative legal and classified ads. There is also a significant portion of the audience that is very comfortable with it. But practically all of that audience is also digitally connected–especially through their cell phones.
So the challenge to weeklies that haven’t already done so is to take the leap from mailbox to mobile: Develop digital-first and social media strategies that will deliver your unique and highly valued content to where your subscribers actually live: online, mobile and in the social stream.





27 May 2012 1 Comment

10 principles a social media policy should have

There may still be some mainstream media journalists out there who don’t see the value of social media,  but Steve Buttry of Digital First Media is not one of them.

Buttry consistently writes in a level-headed, well-informed way about the ways journalism can transform itself and flourish in the digital age. The copy desk is a good place to start.

Buttry writes knowingly about how copy editors should learn to work more quickly and develop aggregation skills. He also suggests the copy desk abandon the notion of being a rewrite desk. “Don’t rewrite a clear sentence just because it wasn’t written the way you would have written it,” he advises.

Most  importantly for me, he advises  copy editors to develop social media skills.

In today’s newsroom, the copy desk can be the strongest swimmer in the social stream of information, which is quickly replacing the news article as the basic unit of journalism.

But before a news organization gets to that point it must decide how it wants play in the social media world.

Let’s set down some basic principles that a good social media policy should have.


1: Social media are good for you. Show me a news organization that is slow to use new techniques, tools and technology to gather and deliver information and I’ll show you, well, U.S. newspapers of 10 years ago, many of which no longer exist. We owe it to our audiences, our shareholders, our bosses, our profession—and history—to use every tool at our disposal to tell the world’s stories.


2: Be serious about social media. Make sure you have a full-time social media director, whatever you call that person, ideally with as large a team as you can afford. If a new process called photography came along, you wouldn’t ask your longtime text news editor to double up as your photo editor. Social media demand a full-time team: journalists who  can think like software engineers and app developers,  and  technology experts of all sorts who can think like journalists.


3: The most important factor is the human factor. News organizations increasingly rely on software to interpret and surface the swiftly moving stream of social commentary on breaking news. No software program or sophisticated algorithm can substitute for a human editor. Make sure your editors understand the technology. One of the best examples of human-algorithm partnership is Reuters Counterparties, edited by Felix Salmon and Ryan McCarthy.


4: Don’t endanger your reputation.  Our authority to bear witness to the news depends on our accuracy and integrity. Nothing we do in social media should call those attributes into question. It takes years for a news organization to build trust with its audience. It can take only a second to destroy it with a false, opinionated  or misleading tweet or Facebook post.


5. Know the risks of speed. One of the best sites using social media to distribute news is MSNBC’s Breaking News.com,  a curatorial platform that uses Twitter to disseminate breaking news from a variety of trusted media partners.  At Breaking News.com,  editors are told that it’s always OK to stop and take a breath before hitting the “publish” button. As a top editor there once  told me, “I’ve never once regretted waiting a minute before publishing. There is no quicker way to discredit your service than by making a horrific error.” (Full disclosure: I served as editor-in-chief at MSNBC.com from 2003 to 2005.)


6: Business is business and personal is personal. While social media are most effective when there is a human touch, don’t  confuse your audience. At some news organizations, journalists merely identify themselves by their job titles and roles. At others, there is a mix of professional and personal information (“Jean Doe is economics correspondent for Agence France Press, likes kittens and movies by Wim Wenders…”).  Each newsroom needs to decide the mix it’s comfortable with. The distinction between the professional and the private has largely broken down in our connected world. No matter how hard a journalist tries to separate professional and private activity in social media, the public will lump it together. Even if a journalist is using a personal Facebook or Twitter account, he should know that he will be identified as representative of his news organization.


7. Report only what you know or trust completely. The same rules of verification apply to social media as they do to all reporting. On Twitter, you should vet and verify the source and the substance of a post before disseminating it. The common disclaimer “RTs are not endorsements” on a journalist’s Twitter profile can damage both your own trustworthiness and the reputation of your news organization. However, if you’ve developed a consistent level of trust in a source or other news organization, it’s OK to retweet. Just remember it’s your hide on the line if it’s wrong.


8. Be wary of disclaimers. On their Twitter or Facebook profiles, Some journalists offer such disclaimers as “Tweets are my own,” “RTs are not endorsements,” or “Opinions are my own.” I have a problem with that. You’re either professional or you’re not.  And the fig leaf that disclaimers offer may not make a difference  if you have an aggressive lawyer suing a news organization for libel or media critics charging your reporters or desk editors with bias.


9. Correct your errors quickly and visibly. When an erroneous tweet goes viral, it’s hard to call it back. Develop a smart and practical correction protocol for social media. If errors are tweeted and retweeted, make multiple corrections. Ask your followers to retweet it. And provide your readers context explaining how the error occurred.


10: Be transparent. Once you develop a set of social media guidelines for your editorial team, make them public so your audiences can hold you to account if you don’t live by them.

And a special bonus principle:

Control yourself: A sure way to irritate and lose an audience is to drown them in micro-tweets of information they don’t need. If you feel you must live tweet a news conference or hearing, confine your tweets to the essential.




30 April 2012 Comments Off

Why I’m uneasy about the WHCA dinner

I have a confession: Since the early 1990s I have attended — and enjoyed–several White House Correspondents Association dinners. But I’ve come to believe they’ve done more harm than good.

This annual media spectacle has certainly done me some good over the years. I’ve recruited some fine journalists at various before- and after-parties–and I’ve been recruited for the best job I’ve ever had. I’ve spent some high-quality, off-duty time with colleagues. I’ve seen some great comedians and heard some great jokes (Stephen Colbert was best, Rich Little was worst). I’ve met some Hollywood stars I’ve admired (thanks for coming, Robert Duvall). I’ve heard three presidents deliver the best lines their speechwriters could write (Obama was best).

So why do I feel so uneasy when spring comes around and I see coverage of journalists romping at this peculiar prom, even though I haven’t been for a while?

It’s because all this media preening fuels a widespread belief  that the Washington press corps is just a part of the royal court, obsessed with preserving its position, whoever the ruler and assorted courtiers may be.

I don’t believe reporters go easy on covering politicians just because they’ve shared some Chardonnay and tilapia in the airless basement of the Washington Hilton. But the annual schmoozefest does nothing to dispel the public’s growing distrust of the press and much to reinforce it.

According to Gallup, only about 43 percent of Americans have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the press, a drop of more than 25 points over the past 35 years. Recently, Jay Rosen wrote about the decline in trust and offered some possible explanations for it. There was very active discussion by commenters, resulting in some additional possible explanations, including the notion that we are in such a culture war that 20 percent distrust the press because of perceived “liberal bias,” 20 percent because they believe the right is “working the refs” and 10 percent because they’re fed up with feckless  ”he said, she said” journalism.

However, the explanation that crystallized my discomfort with the WHCA dinner and helped explain my discomfort each April was this one:

  • “Just part of the power structure now. Over Twitter, investigative journalist Phil Williams wrote, “Press more popular when viewed as standing up to power. Then it became part of power structure.” From this point of view, the glamorization of journalism after Watergate, combined with the influence of celebrity within the news tribe, plus the growing concentration of media ownership in a few large companies that themselves seek influence, had made mockery of the journalist as a courageous truthteller standing outside the halls of power.”
As Rosen put it, the WHCA dinner is ground zero of this explanation.

Who can blame the public for believing the Washington press corps and the people they cover are  engaged in a perpetual kind of Kabuki drama whose main purpose is to stay in or keep access to those halls of power? Even as I write this, I resist this notion. I think of the many principled Washington journalists–superb colleagues from many news organizations– who would vehemently dispute this and insist that their coverage isn’t affected at all by sharing a red carpet with the people they cover (and a lot of celebrities they don’t).

And I believe them.

But distrust in the press will not have to drop much further before it won’t matter what  those journalists report.





19 April 2012 2 Comments

Levon Helm, a great American voice

The death  of Levon Helm has stilled the last of the great singers of The Band.

Yes, Robbie Robertson did vocals–thankfully, he still does–and The Band (Helm, Robertson, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel) was very much a team effort, at least for the first two albums, “Music From Big Pink” and “The Band.” Of course, Robertson held the bulk of the songwriting credits. Yet to me it was the voices of Helm, Danko (who died in 1999) and Manuel (who committed suicide in 1986) that gave The Band’s music a sound that was as old as America and as new as the Space Age.

In 1976 in the performance immortalized in  “The Last Waltz,”  the best concert movie ever made, the singers were shamans channeling 19th-century spirits  on such songs as “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” “Ophelia” and “It Makes No Difference.” But this was no roots act. As Jon Pareles puts it in his New York Times obituary of Helm, the songs “are rock-ribbed with history and tradition yet hauntingly surreal.”

Maybe it’s the Southerner in me, but Helm–born in Arkansas and the only American in the group–provided a channel to something mythic and eternal, and something very American. The result was music that had both respect for musical elders and ancestors and a joyous, in-your-face rock and roll energy. This was music that hadn’t been heard before.

Over the past decade,  fighting throat cancer, Helm recorded fine studio and live albums of rootsy Americana music and won Grammies for his efforts. He conducted “Midnight Rambles” with other musicians at his home in Woodstock, NY.  The PBS NewsHour interviewed him in 2009.

He was also a damn fine actor, who played some thoroughly American roles, including Loretta Lynn’s father in “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” My favorite Levon Helm performance, though, is in “The Right Stuff,” in which he plays Jack Ridley, an Air Force sidekick of Chuck Yeager, played by Sam Shepard.

There’s a scene near the end of the film when Ridley and another airman are desperately searching in the California desert for Yeager, who has bailed out of a malfunctioning jet. Through the shimmering waves of heat we see Yeager, badly burned but walking boldly through the desert, just a great American doing his job.

“Sir, is that a man?” Ridley is asked. “You damn right it is!” he answers.

You could say the same of Levon Helm–a great American doing his job.


28 March 2012 1 Comment

Is the basic unit of journalism changing?

Could the basic unit of journalism be changing?

Is the “story,” that basic device that every J-school student is taught to write in Journalism 101,  being supplanted by something less defined–and something less in control of reporters?

You could make a strong case that it is after reading a fascinating interview with Mohamed Nanabhay, the outgoing online chief of Al Jazeera English. In a conversation with Nieman Journalism Lab’s Justin Ellis, Nanabhay offers some insights into how Al Jazeera English has been so successful in swimming in the social media stream.

But the most significant insight from Nanabhay is this:

  • “We’ve historically produced a unit of content that contains the entire story, so it has all the context built in. We have the introduction, we have the meat, we have a conclusion and that’s a story or a video package. What’s changed now is the context has moved from that particular video package into a stream of content…So each of those individual tweets and Facebook updates and YouTube videos themselves wouldn’t provide you with context. But if you look at a stream of data coming through you would see a bigger picture.”

We’ve probably always known as journalists that the single story can’t provide the big picture, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying. The problem is that, since the advent of the Internet and social media, reporters on the scene aren’t the only ones producing journalism anymore. And J-schools and news organizations have yet to produce technology that can put reporters in multiple places at the same time. As Nanabhay points out, there are tweets, Facebook and other social media updates,  still photographs and videos from professional and non-professional observers and protagonists.

The big picture can be found in this social media stream–and the most successful news organizations are those, like Al Jazeera English, that choose to swim in the stream and engage with their fellow swimmers, instead of just observing it as it flows by.

Al Jazeera’s “The Stream” shows how news organizations can take their own produced “stories” and create larger, richer and wider reporting by finding, aggregating and applying the principles of good journalism to relevant information in the social stream. Not all tweets are relevant or accurate and not every YouTube video is worth surfacing or even what it appears to be. It’s the job of journalists to find the ones that fill in the big picture.

There have been predictable howls from some journalists about how  jobs are endangered in the new media landscape and “story” standards are suffering. But they’re missing that bigger picture.

As Ellis quotes Nanabhay about coverage of the Arab Spring: “…One thing that is overlooked when considering the role social media played in their coverage is the fact that Twitter and Facebook would not have been effective if Al Jazeera’s journalists weren’t familiar with the people, activists and other groups providing updates from the ground.”

Exactly. Al Jazeera journalists used the breadth and depth of their expertise to seek out, verify and make sense of the best of the social media stream of information.

Rather than whining about the diminishing importance of the professionally produced “story” and how amateurs are filling gaps, news organizations and educators have an opportunity to create new roles for journalists–editor/curators, gate watchers, social media swimmers and talent spotters–and to train them in the new basic unit of journalism: the stream.


10 March 2012 Comments Off

Eight ways social media have been good for journalism

Defending social media is a bit like defending the sunrise. It’s going to happen no matter what and the only way to avoid it is to keep sleeping.

Nevertheless, Dorian Benkoil at MediaShift does a fine job of taking on the anti-social media whiners. As he puts it,  ”to rail that social media destroy our social fabric is as silly as claiming that books destroy our memory.”

As I read Dorian’s piece I was reminded of how journalism is being transformed by social media. While there are many dangers and pitfalls, it’s important to remember the ways social media have improved journalism.

  • The democratization of publishing. Now that anyone with an idea and Internet access can be a publisher, the “mainstream media” no longer have a monopoly on the flow of information. Stories that in the past would not see the light of day until they had received the blessing of the editor of a large newspaper or the producer of a network television program now go viral at the speed of light.
  • Social media vastly expand journalists’ ability to gather news and research. With a few clicks, we can unearth sources and access information that 20 years ago would have taken a day to research.
  • Social media vastly expand distribution opportunities. There are more than three-quarters of a billion Facebook users upwards of 300 million on Twitter. News organizations large and small are reaching vast new audiences through social media.
  • Social media enable journalists and citizens to circumvent political and corporate control of information. Social media didn’t create the Arab Spring revolutions, but activists have used social media to communicate and coordinate. Three decades ago, the Solidarity movement in Poland communicated with underground news sheets. Now the Tweeters and Facebookers of Egypt, Syria and Yemen are able to communicate with each other–and journalists–instantly.
  • Journalists and their news organizations can interact more freely and more deeply with their audiences. You don’t have to wait for a letter to the editor, or even for the phone to ring or email to arrive after a user has viewed a story. You can communicate in real time.
  • Social media and developers are rapidly evolving new tools for journalists. Increasing numbers of journalists and news organizations are using Facebook to connect professionally with their audiences. News organizations using Twitter are evolving a new distribution model, essentially a 21st century version of the wire service, a platform for the credible reporting of breaking news.
  • Social media are allowing us to create more coherent, relevant and trustworthy online communities. The rise of Facebook, Twitter and Google+, on which users use their real identities, promotes more meaningful exchanges among a community of trusted peers. The era of irresponsible and incoherent comments on online news reports by anonymous users is rapidly fading.
  • Social media invite journalists to evolve new professional roles and responsibilities as amplifiers, verifiers and curators of content. As news organizations manage their place in the social media stream, new jobs are being developed–jobs that didn’t exist even a couple of years ago. In our perpetually economically challenged profession, this is good news indeed.