Journalism is in the midst of not one but two revolutions: the rise of the reader and the birth of a new medium. The two are closely intertwined as serial provocateur and social media enthusiast Jeff Jarvis was keen to point out. He caused wide scale controversy recently when he claimed that he think of articles “not as the goal of journalism but as a value-added luxury or as a by-product of the process.”
That statement is a bold one and, luckily for Jarvis, it is one that he moderates considerably in his explanation. He is not, as Frederic Filloux believes, attempting to reduce the article to a mere accessory of news, an antiquated trapping that has no place in the modern newsroom. Instead he is proposing that articles are a “luxury” means of communication, rather than the primary one.
Jarvis’ alternative is certainly controversial. It is based around two central tenets: that the ‘burst format’ of Twitter and other social media sites is a worthy medium for news; that this format is ideal to utilise the power of citizen journalism. In essence, Jarvis proposes that certain news events be covered by continuous bursts of information from a journalism, supplemented with responses from the people that are closely involved in the story.
The fact that even the most hostile responses to “The article as luxury or byproduct” fail to fully rebut this argument really is indicative of the way that journalism is changing. Online news is acting as though it was printed on some sort of digital paper: the entire thing is rather reminiscent of Harry Potter’s Daily Prophet, a newspaper like our own just with moving pictures. That is what online news feels like: the same old thing with a little splash of magic thrown in. We are far too content to stick with our established method when we should be exploring the potential of the digital world.
A great example of this is the amount of space that is wasted on background material, included just in case the reader is not aware of what has been happening with that story. The idea of using links to establish context is a brilliant one. News is moving to a different medium so why waste time rehashing information when we can just provide a link. This isn’t a new idea; the use of explanatory footnotes and references in academia has long fulfilled that niche and food magazines often group recipes in an appendix at the end of the publication in order to save space and maintain focus.
It’s vital to get people engaged in the news from their community. This is one of the most misunderstood concepts around and it leaves a lot of journalists looking terrified. Why? Because there is a huge misapprehension about the nature of citizen journalism. It will not replace skilled writers, it will not put good journalists out of a job. The idea that an editor will fire the majority of his staff, invest in a crowd sourcing platform and fill his paper with community content is implausible at best. Community content can instead be used a source for a story, or a way to enrich what has already been written with reader’s thoughts, photos or accounts. You still need journalists at the top though and that’s a point that really hit me back in December.
When I wanted to get an account of the student protests on Westminster Bridge, I could have use the traditional model- gone there myself, tried to get some accounts and then taken it all home to weave into an article. Instead, I used their content to supplement my own: my coverage was a great mixture of analysis, photos, video and eyewitness accounts.
If I wasn’t curating the information and sifting out the content of value- if my blog was simply a live feed from the community- then it would be over whelming and largely useless. News cannot simply become a mish mash of tweets with a few contextual links. If this became the norm, there would be no way to preserve journalistic integrity, the slightest pretence of objectivity or professional standards. There has to be a curator for all the information coming in.
Contrary to what many people think, this is journalism. Being able to determine the reliability of a source, organise information and collate the strands of news together into a single thread are key journalistic skills. That does not mean that the other craft of journalism, writing with precision and flair, is under threat. Articles are by no means obsolete, as Jarvis says they are simply not necessary in every instance. They are not so much being replaced as being supplemented. As the Guardian has proved by mingling analysis with unfolding sources, the two can often work side by side. The much maligned social media and the ‘burst format’ will not kill journalism, if anything they will revive it.