“There were days when the Red Crescent was begging for volunteers to help in taking the bodies of dead people off the city street and bury them properly. The hospital grounds have been turned to burial grounds [sic]…”
It was in 2003 that a fascination with the possibilities of a new contribution to journalism was born for me out of the words of Salam al-Janabi, known to all his readers at the time as Salem Pax. Salam was an English speaking blogger whose blog Where is Raed? became a testament to the limitations of traditional ways of reporting and revealed the possibilities that online publishing tools brought to journalism. Each day, I couldn’t log on to the internet fast enough, dial-up screeching my impatience, to see what had happened overnight. I was fixated. And excited.
Disquiet had begun settling on reports coming out of Iraq; questions were emerging on online forums about US government motives and the information being fed to audiences by The New York Times. And then there was Salam writing a blog for his friend Raed about what was going on during the invasion of Iraq: sometimes eloquent, sometimes observational, sometimes clumsily written, but always compelling. It was an insight into a situation that might have reached a limited audience months later, but online it reached a mass audience as it happened.
Consequently, it was later revealed that reports filed by Judith Miller for The New York Times about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, often quoting unnamed US officials as sources, appeared to be fabricated. Whether this was deliberate or not has not yet been fully established. It was a front page article of Miller’s that reported Iraq had “stepped up its quest for nuclear weapons and…embarked on a worldwide hunt for materials to make an atomic bomb,” that was cited by Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld as reasons to go to war. It was a report later proven to be false.
In a poetic full-circle Salam eventually landed up writing for The Guardian, which also published a book based on “Where is Raed?” under the title The Baghdad Blog. That’s not to say that his posts were not to be viewed without question; there were many at the time, as there should have been. In the beginning, Salam was writing under a pseudonym and it wasn’t until May 2003 that The Guardian tracked him down and verified his identity.
But this isn’t a story about the death of traditional news organisations or even their perceived political biases, but rather the moment where the impact of a single blogger made a lot of people sit up and notice a powerful shift in news distribution.
Dan Gillmor, technology writer and author of We the Media, called this the end of “big media”, which “treated news as a lecture”. Tomorrow’s news reporting, he said, would be more of a conversation than a seminar. The London bombings confirmed this news evolution for many. Helen Boaden, BBC director of News, saw her newsroom inundated with pictures only minutes after the bombing. “The long -predicted democratisation of media had become a reality, as ordinary members of the public turned photographers and reporters,” she said.
Fast forward to 2011. I was captivated, like many, by the recent events in Egypt. Late one night I came across the stream of a twitterer going by the handle @bloggerseif. I think I found his tweets from Andy Carvin of National Public Radio, who did an amazing job of creating a “curated” twitter stream of all that was going on. That’s another story in itself. But that night, it was Ali Seif’s tweets that made the whole situation real for me. In the chaos of the night, his often disjointed and emotive tweets, told the story of a small child they found; lost among the chaos in Tehran square. They had no way of knowing if the baby’s parents were alive, or even who he was. I think he could only say his name. I was captivated. Amazingly, they located the child’s parents the next day. It was hugely emotional to read, but I felt like I had some insight (and empathy!) to the bigger picture through the live and raw tweets of Ali Sief and the plight of this lost child that would otherwise be overwhelmed by the revolution around them.
These days, we almost take the changes in news reporting for granted. But what has become glaringly obvious is that the media is not dying. It’s flourishing. At no other time in history have we had access to so much information. And we are creating it at an amazing rate. According to Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, every two days we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003. In digital terms that’s something like five exabytes of data. And it’s early days.
With this evolution has come a new set of challenges. How do we sort through all this information? How do media companies survive? Can they adapt at a rate fast enough to keep up with the erosion of their business model? How do we keep public interest journalism in the forefront of the day’s news when the news cycle has shrunk and important issues fleet in and out in a day? George Megalogenis, in Trivial Pursuit: Leadership and the end of the reform era, his Quarterly essay from 2010, says: “There is no tolerance for a long argument anymore because the public has been taught that every new day carries the promise of a blizzard of unique content.” This highlights the next problem, payment. News is, after all a short-term commodity. The question about whether people will pay for online news is still pretty untested, but I do think there is a working model in there somewhere. The New York Times Co. for example, turned a third-quarter profit and now has 324,000 paid digital subscribers, after launching their paywall in March 2011.
So, there is light. News organisations, often large corporate entities, have needed to learn how to experiment and respond to their audience at a scale and speed they have never had to before. By and large though, they are trying. In Australia, a recent collaboration between a grassroots site Our Say that asks people to vote on issues they see as important and The Age, saw readers vote for questions they wanted answered on climate change. The top questions were then investigated and reported back to The Age audience.
Media companies are just not able to take their audience for granted any longer. An increase in competition has meant they’re under greater pressure to create compelling content; a better-connected audience has meant that they cannot get away with mistakes and fabrications; better communication through social networks like Twitter has meant journalists are “on the ground” where the audience is. These are all great things for news and I’d say, despite all the challenges, we are in the golden era of journalism.
We are no longer confined by necessities like printing presses or media licenses to participate in news creation. You don’t need to understand HTML or any technical aspects to publish news to an audience. While journalists working in media companies have been traditionally resistant to these changes, more and more are embracing social media, mostly because it’s hard to deny its importance as a tool, both as a form of news publication and news gathering.
Ultimately, the news is good for news.
Bronwen Clune is founder and CEO of Norg Media, a company dedicated to creating people powered news sites around the world. Bronwen launched Norg in 2006 with what she says was a very “green” outlook on how the web worked. Not one to sit on the sidelines and very much in awe of the changes she saw it bringing to media, she wanted to explore that for herself. After somewhat of an epiphany and an intense few months of idea-jamming, she launched her vision for a future news organisation.
Image Fort Wayne Newspapers by Jon B. Sweren.