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.


One Response to “Is the basic unit of journalism changing?”

  1. David Marash 4 April 2012 at 10:25 am #

    “Content” is a pretty meaningless term, and several times Al Jazeera has been burned because they did not know the provenance of materials they aired and either they or their sources seriously misrepresented the facts — even if they did provide content. Tweeting is often a distraction from real reporting, and passing along unverified or contextless content often does more harm than good. Happy horses–t is not journalism.