In the financial wire services in the 80s and 90s, we fought more competitively than anyone, with timings of news breaks coming down to fractions of a second. A news organisation I worked for got into trouble with the gallery for leaving a (bricklike) mobile phone open at doorstops so a sub back in Sydney could snap quick heads on interest rates.
Now, everybody is doing it - and largely because they can. Online media, 24-hour cable television, wireless technology and hard and soft tools like smartphones and Twitter mean anyone publish anywhere anytime. Information distribution has been democratised as Annabel Crabb rightly noted in her speech this week.
This means the notion of a "scoop" is changing. Beating someone by a nano-second on a story that's going to break anyway isn't really that impressive anymore and often comes down to whether your technology is working. So journalists complaining about being squeezed too thinly and wondering what value they can add in a world where news is a commodity might like to reflect on whether
I quoted from this paper in an earlier post, but in light of the debate this week about the implications of the explosion in online media, I think it's worth repeating. The Columbia Journalism Review recently ran a thought-provoking cover story - The Hamster Wheel - which decried the consequence of this always-on phenomenon in modern media:
"The Hamster Wheel isn’t speed; it’s motion for motion’s sake. The Hamster Wheel is volume without thought. It is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no. It is copy produced to meet arbitrary productivity metrics.As the story says, everybody is a wire service journalist now. There is little time to think or analyse or separate the irrelevant noise from the important signal. It is always about the next thing and the next thing. As the need for speed increases, the resources are also cut from underneath them. They are required to do more with less, filing to multiple platforms and never getting a chance to take a big picture view.
But it’s more than just mindless volume. It’s a recalibration of the news calculus. Of the factors that affect the reporting of news, an underappreciated one is the risk/reward calculation that all professional reporters make when confronted with a story idea: How much time versus how much impact? This informal vetting system is surprisingly ruthless and ultimately efficient for one and all. The more time invested, the bigger the risk, but also the greater potential glory for the reporter, and the greater value to the public (can’t forget them!).
Journalists will tell you that where once newsroom incentives rewarded more deeply reported stories, now incentives skew toward work that can be turned around quickly and generate a bump in Web traffic."
But here's the thing. The media has a choice. Just because online forums and Twitter allow you to publish constantly and in micro-detail about events as they unfold (The Wall Street Journal had seven journalists live-blogging the opening of the Winter Olympics), it doesn't mean you HAVE to do it this way or, indeed, that the public wants you to. The media in many ways are doing it to themselves and mistaking what the public actually needs from journalism:
"Given that the news business has lost an estimated 15,000 journalists since 2000, it does not directly follow to go from 'we’re facing a serious transformation in our industry' to 'let’s write as much as possible as fast as we can'. It’s not hard to understand the impulse to do more with less. Hamsterism is a natural reaction to a novel set of conditions — a collapsing model, a new paradigm, a cacophony of new voices, fewer people filling an infinite hole. And through the haze we can glimpse an online model that equates Web traffic with advertising dollars, though the connection is far from clear.In the meantime, the unrelenting focus on speed and 'always on' news has real consequences for quality in journalism. For one thing, it increases the leverage of the PR agents and the spinners and the flaks, because the journos, like junkies aching for a fix, are ever more desperate for content to keep the churn churning. So they no longer set the agenda for themselves, the agenda is set for them. And, ever more passively, they flag the copy through.
"But newspapers aren’t wire services, and wires aren’t blogs. News organizations must change with the times, but nowhere is it written in Newsonomics that news organisations should drift away from core values, starting with the corest of core — investigations and reporting in the public interest. These are not just 'part of the mix'. They are a mindset, a doctrine, an organizing value around which healthy news cultures are created....the point."
By the way, this is what is happening to the ABC in Australia, the one organisation we should be able to count on for public interest journalism. It is not an ideological fix-up, so much as a news organisation that is so caught up in the technology of distribution that it forgets what people look for from journalists - not so much speed but context and understanding and an appreciation of the big changes that are often obscured by the day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute and second-to-second noise.
That's the sort of avenue I'd be pursuing if I were still in the industry. The biggest value that journalists can add is through understanding and clarifying and contextualising for their often overwhelmed audiences. Less fast and furious. More last and curious.