Friday, November 04, 2005
NEWSPAPERS: Making the inside of newsrooms as big as outside
Subject: Edward Cone: Making inside of newsroom as big as outside
By Edward Cone
Greensboro, [N.C.] News & Record
In the final book of "The Chronicles of Narnia," there is a
description of a building that is bigger inside than it is outside.
That's how I see traditional journalism in the age of the Internet.
Whenever I think I've mapped its new contours, somebody shows me
I arrived at a recent conference on journalism and the Web confident I
knew a thing or two about the subject. I was there as an ambassador
from Greensboro, our fair city being the subject of some national
scrutiny as a laboratory for new kinds of journalism, and I sang for
my supper by rapping about the proliferation of Web logs and online
communities within this newspaper and beyond it.
And certainly Greensboro was relevant to the conversation and of
particular interest to the empiricists in the group. Alex Jones, a
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who is now a lecturer at Harvard's
Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, asked me
if The New York Times could possibly emulate the News & Record. That's
a question last posed, well, never.
Meanwhile Jill Abramson, managing editor of the Times, listened as
journalists and bloggers suggested ways her paper can adjust to the
Web. None of those ways, despite a common misconception about the
changes afoot in the practice of journalism that seemed to pervade
even some corners of the conference room at Harvard, involve replacing
with blog-wielding amateurs such valuable assets as, say, the Baghdad
bureau maintained by The Paper Formerly Known as Of Record. Instead we
heard strategies for using technology to tap the brains and creativity
of more people than the Times bureau alone could ever employ, and then
feeding this input back through the paper's great editorial machinery
to produce a better brand of journalism.
This idea that there is more knowledge outside the newsroom than in
it, that as writer Dan Gillmor puts it, "my readers know more than I
do," is of course the point of bothering to report stories in the
first place. What's new is the ability of individuals to publish their
own words, as well as audio and video, cheaply and easily on the Web.
Experts and eyewitnesses are no longer consigned to audience status.
They don't have to wait to be interviewed by professionals but can
push information out at their own discretion.
The Web logs and online public spaces staked out by the News & Record
and by local community sites like Greensboro101.com are manifestations
of this trend, ways of making the inside of the building larger than
its physical parameters. But the thing about a distributed revolution
is that it's so darn distributed. At the conference (which was called
Blogging, Journalism, and Credibility) I was reminded that what we are
doing here is just part of the big story happening across the Web.
One straightforward example of opening the newsroom to the
intelligence of its community came from Minnesota Public Radio, where
a database of thousands of listeners is polled via e-mail to gather
information for stories, which can now be assembled from a depth of
research unthinkable with conventional reporting techniques. A
presentation on the syndicated audio files known as podcasts -- the
name derives from the iPods on which many listeners receive the files
-- underscored the need for traditional radio organizations to
innovate if they are going to survive in an era when anyone with Web
access can create and distribute programming.
Then there was Jimmy Wales, founder of the Wikipedia, a collaborative
online encyclopedia written and edited on the Web by thousands of
people around the world (wikis are software that allow groups to work
together online). The free encyclopedia is trustworthy, huge,
multilingual and growing, and is produced for only a fraction of what
gets spent by traditional competitors. Now Wales, who spoke about the
culture that has evolved to make such an open project possible, is
launching a collaborative news service called Wikinews. It made me
wonder what a wiki history of Greensboro, or a wiki hub for ACC
basketball, might look like.
What media organizations, including the News & Record, are trying to
figure out is how to add value to this flood of personal publishing
without being drowned by it. Even as the new media enhances the old,
it has some very disruptive possibilities. While Rick Kaplan,
president of MSNBC, said at the conference that Web logs actually
increase the ratings of his programs, online services such as Craig's
List and Monster are already eating away at the ad revenue that pays
for things like that Times bureau in Baghdad. Meanwhile the new media
players are trying to figure out revenue models of their own.
It's going to take some innovative thinking -- there was clamor at the
conference to make all media archives available for free online, for
example -- to preserve what's worth keeping in the existing structure
and to keep the buildings from exploding from the pressure of the
vastness they suddenly can contain.
That Narnian stable as described by C.S. Lewis is an allegory for
heaven, but despite a theological reference to the omniscience of the
global network made at the conference by the journalist Christopher
Lydon (which led, inevitably, to a side conversation on William
Gibson's "Neuromancer"), my claim for the Web is considerably more
modest. It is merely remaking the information business and fitting the
outside into the inside of the media establishment, but that still
seems pretty miraculous to me.
Edward Cone (www.edcone.com, firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column
for the News & Record most Sundays.