News is a stream of events, questions (and sometimes answers), debate, increasing information, and evolving understanding. News became a product only because it had to — to fit into publishers’ and then broadcasters’ space and time and production schedules. Now news can revert to nature. News never starts. It never ends. In the image of technology pioneer Dave Winer, news is a river. It flows.
When Mark Zuckerberg branded his flow of updates on Facebook a “News Feed,” I’ll confess I was among the newsies who mocked it as a collection of mere chatter, not news. By the time Twitter came along, I knew better. Yet at first even Twitter’s founders didn’t realize its potential as a medium for news. As initially conceived, Twitter was meant to deliver just one constantly replaced status line per user, answering the question, “What are you doing?” According to cofounder Ev Williams, the updates were going to be private by default. Thus, Twitter never would have become a stream for news. Its fate was not self-evident.
Like a true platform, Twitter’s prospects were discovered not by its creators but by its users. Those users weren’t trying to be journalists broadcasting news to the world. They used Twitter simply to share what was happening around them with people they knew. Sometimes, what is happening around you is news. “And that’s why we changed the question from ‘What are you doing?’ to ‘What’s happening?’” Evans recalled in an interview. “We really liked the idea of reporters. I call them information collecting nodes — millions of them all around the world — that are reporting back about what’s happening around them.” When people enduring earthquakes in China or tsunamis in Japan went to Twitter to share what was happening to them, they were mostly trying to inform family and friends. But they did so in public, and so they informed the world. When Janis Krums tweeted a photo of Sully Sullenberger’s plane in the Hudson River, he wasn’t a journalist and didn’t have a media megaphone; he merely shared this astounding sight and his audience spread it far and wide and made it news. In the Arab Spring, the revolutionaries in Tunisia and Egypt — and the would-be revolutionaries of Iran before them — did not use Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to make media. Their ambition was not to become CNN iReporters. They used these tools to find each other and to organize and act together, coordinating activities or warning of government thugs around a next corner. Embedded inside their communication was news, news that reporters, photographers, and TV cameras were not always there to witness.
Andy Carvin recognized the value of the news carried in that flow. Carvin, the former social strategist for National Public Radio, was an early virtuoso of Twitter. If he was at a conference, no one else there would need to take notes because he captured every cogent quote. Carvin had spent time in Tunisia and Egypt and knew people there. So when protests started in each country, he had the ability to call on his acquaintances and ask whether other people he saw on Twitter were really there. Were their reports accurate? Therein lies what I think will be a key skill of journalists in the future: the discernment of nodes and networks. In the past, journalists had Rolodexes of experts they could call to quote. Now those experts, as well as participants in and witnesses to news, can and do share what they know, without the need for media’s intervention. A news organization will want to find and listen to those people and confirm their authority. Carvin could do that. His original contact was the node; the people around that contact were networks.
In the future, journalists must ask: How do we encourage and support flows of information? How do we add value to them? Carvin added value in many ways: He confirmed facts. He debunked rumors. He added context and explanation. He would note a witness’ perspective and possible bias. He supplied background. He asked people to help him translate a video or confirm that a location in a picture was accurate. He discovered stories worthy of coverage and fed them to the NPR newsroom, which couldn’t handle all his incoming tips, they told me. He became a conduit for people with news. Carvin developed tricks to find news and witnesses. For example, he’d search for phrases like “Holy shit!” and “WTF” in tweets that were shared before a news event was reported on TV or wire services. It’s a good bet that those people were witnesses, not just commenters. Then he contacted those people to find out more and reach more witnesses. Nodes and networks. Most of these skills are not really new to journalists. But these skills are exercised in new ways when dealing with a story as a present-tense flow of unstructured and unconfirmed but potentially valuable information.
The Guardian prides itself on another form of news-as-flow: its live-blogging of news events. In a sense, this is a precursor to Twitter. I used to live-blog conferences I’d attend — until Carvin and his like came along and did it better on Twitter. At CUNY, we teach live-blogging because it entails different skills from writing articles after the fact. Live-bloggers must listen for the important facts and quotes flying past, capturing and sharing them while paying little heed to narrative and structure. At the South by Southwest conference in 2011, the Guardian’s then-deputy editor, Ian Katz, said that devoting a writer to live-blog an event — for example, the 2012 hearings about the hacking scandal at News Corp. or a championship sports match or the London riots of 2011 — takes a considerable investment. True, I replied, but doesn’t writing an article as well? Each form is used appropriately to report news. Sometimes, a Twitter stream is sufficient. Sometimes, a live blog with its freedom to write at length and embed media is better. Sometimes, an article that gives form, structure, background, and context to an event is what’s needed. Sometimes, news is best served fresh. Sometimes, it’s better when baked.
Who would have thought that Wikipedia would become a medium not just for encyclopedic knowledge of history but also for a flow of current information in a big news story? The platform and its users turn out to be brilliant at delivering snapshots of what we know now about a rapidly evolving event, such as an earthquake. As we think about flows of news and about news as assets and paths, the Wikipedia model performs one function of the article, bringing the reader up to speed. Unlike the article, Wikipedia is itself constantly brought up to speed by its users.
Of course, there is one other familiar form of news-as-flow: 24-hour cable news. Too often, though, the flow of actual news is insufficient to fill the time available, so cable news vamps with constantly looped video of the story at hand and numbingly repetitive narrative, which adds little.
If we reimagine news, when appropriate, as a flow to which journalists may add substance, then where does that take our work? It becomes necessary for news organizations to develop relationships with people in the places or fields they may cover so they can discern and connect with nodes and networks of witnesses and sources. The bigger and more richly veined a reporter’s network as a journalist, the better position she is in when news breaks and she must call upon those she knows. That’s no longer done in a Rolodex. It’s done in social networks. This is the best reason for a journalist to be social: to connect with sources even before there is news.
Next, the journalist has to develop new listening skills to learn about news as it happens: See Carvin’s WTF rule. This will include technology: the ability to spot news by analyzing flows of information and sensing the anomalies in it — e.g., a sudden increase in discussion of a prominent person’s name should lead to the question: Why is this happening now? The news startup Vocativ says its “proprietary technology navigates the deep web, homing in on the part of the Internet that search engines can’t reach, to discover the stories other news organizations cannot.” More and more often, the public is ahead of news outlets in discovering and spreading news … or rumors. A death rumor about a famous person is no reason to spread it, but it may be reason to investigate it.
If this flow of information is valuable, then it stands to reason that a news organization should encourage more of it, building or more often using platforms for communities to share information on their own, such as Twitter, Google Maps, Ushahidi, Facebook, and forums. Now imagine even 1 percent of the people walking through Times Square wearing some less-geeky successor to Google Glass, which will let any of them to shoot and share what they see in an instant. The other 99 percent will be carrying phones they can pull out to also capture and share news around them. News organizations’ first reflex used to be sending a photographer to the scene, arriving after the news is over. Now its first reflex is to beg witnesses with cameras to send them their images. When a plane landed on a New York highway, drivers stopped to take and share pictures on Instagram. Once the photos spread via Twitter, it took no time for assignment editors at TV stations and photo editors at newspapers and wire services to leave comments begging to use the images. Finding and verifying witnesses’ accounts on social media is now a core journalistic skill. News Corp. bought a startup, Storyful, that makes its living discovering and verifying such accounts and media assets.
Next, imagine networks of sensors connected to the internet. Look at Safecast. Established a week after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, it equipped volunteers with Geiger counters. In under a year Safecast gathered 2.5 million data points on radiation in Japan and worldwide. Safecast next raised $104,000 in crowdfounding through Kickstarter to manufacture handheld detectors that could be used by thousands more volunteers. Search Kickstarter for “sensor” and you will find many more projects to manufacture sensors — or turn phones into sensors — that can be connected to the internet to report on radiation, moisture, light, noise, temperature, humidity, altitude, movement, carbon monoxide and air quality, and other environmental conditions. Consider, too, that our cars are becoming connected computers, and that appliances in our homes and offices can feed back data through the grid. What news could be found in that enormous flow of data? If traffic and noise suddenly spike or disappear at Times Square, turn to a webcam and look for tweets from people who are there to ask what’s going on.
We need to work with flows of information and news both from and to the public. Now that everyone is connected everywhere, all the time, we can keep them updated constantly. I don’t think we have yet perfected the art of the alert. Cable news, of course, is in a constant state of cardiac fibrillation, making anything and everything into “breaking news.” When I got Google Glass, I quickly turned off both The New York Times and Twitter apps because I chafed at being interrupted for the 83rd retweet of a scrap of news or for the Times headline that would follow sometime later. Now I have an Android Wear watch and I am frustrated with alerts The Times sends every morning telling me it has 15 or 20 new stories. Well, I hope so. Jim Brady, former editor of Digital First Media and now founder of a local news startup in Philadelphia, says an alert should be worth stopping a meeting to share. An alert is an interruption. The Guardian is good at issuing alerts judiciously, for news events that are worth it. Ideally, alerts should be personally relevant. Cir.ca, the news application that unbundles news stories, allows readers to follow any particular story for updates — which, again, is made possible because Cir.ca knows what you have read and thus what would be new to you. Cir.ca can alert you about news in a story you have said you care about. Alerts should be aware of the user’s context — that is, you probably care a lot more about a flood if you’re driving toward it than away from it. Relevant alerts are a next frontier for experimentation in unbundled news.