A Case for Real-Time News, And a Path To Get There

Having reached the half-way point of my eight-month fellowship with RJI and reflecting on my progress, I am reminded of those wind up toys that run up against a wall, churning away until they are turned in a new direction, only to run into another wall.  Repeat the process enough times, and eventually the little toy finds some open space to run.

The analogy is apt enough as I dove into the deep end of a project identified vaguely enough as “credibility and social media.”  At first I pondered the idea of “truth,” an exploration that quickly gave way to an investigation into transparency, the tool by which readers may make their own judgement about the trustworthiness of a journalist’s perspective and, therefore, perspective.  From transparency, it’s a quick skip and a jump to credibility and a moment later, you’ve waded deep into context.

It has been a fascinating, if frustrating, journey to this point, and I reach it convinced of a set of hypotheses about the current and future state of news journalism.

First, and as I’ve written before, the profession and practice of news journalism has been profoundly disrupted by social media. Anyone with a smartphone and Twitter account, with intention or not, is a news reporter.  Professional news media are no longer depended upon to deliver the news.  Instead, journalists must move to a different – and arguably higher – place in the value chain, providing analysis, insight, and context to news as it happens.

Second, and with all due respect and apology to Marshall McLuhan,  the message may once again trump the media.  Journalists today must be prepared to communicate across formats, media types, and tribal alliances.

Finally, the process of delivering the news itself is shifting from an act of reporting, preparing, and publishing a story to one of continuous, real-time story telling. To keep pace with the speed of connected media and always-on audiences, journalists must learn to tell stories in bits and as they unfold, and to do so with integrity to content and context.

Culture, as well as technology, is driving this disruption and  change.  Individuals, unconstrained by beats and deadlines, by editors and style guides, by dwindling ad revenues and rising labor costs, have become the modern news machine.  In response, the media variously have ignored social media, vilified it, a few even embraced it.  No matter what the reaction, though, one thing is clear: the impact of social media on professional journalists and news organizations is profound, fundamentally altering the way breaking news is identified, sourced, verified, and delivered.

Where many see disruption to an industry already greatly impacted by the consolidation of advertisers and the shift of advertising dollar from print to online media, there is, perhaps, opportunity for media organizations to re-position their brand of journalism as the providers of credible information delivered in rich and meaningful context, and to do so by leveraging the disruptive technologies that might otherwise negatively impact the media business.

Designed initially as a micro-blogging tool, Twitter offers great promise as a tool to enable journalists to better compete in the 24/7 world of social media.  In effect, Twitter has the potential to become a fully-integrated reporting tool, combining the modern-day equivalent of a police scanner with tools to validate and verify stories and the means to publish stories in real-time as they unfold.

To realize this potential, a new kind of content management system that blends discovery, sourcing, verification, editorializing, publishing and measurement must be created, leveraging the Twitter engine, its global user-base, and its APIs. Such a system would improve a reporter’s ability to identify breaking and trending news, blend data and sourced material with crowd reporting and insights to add context and texture to a story, and rapidly publish a story in real time using standardized hashtags that bring credibility and transparency to unfolding news. This tool would be, in effect, a context management system for newsrooms.

This system consists of three primary components:

  1. A simple yet comprehensive and transparent social media policy for newsrooms. While journalists and news organizations are adopting Twitter for professional applications, in a preliminary survey of journalists, less than one-third of news organizations have a formal Twitter use policy.  Reporters, then, are left on their own to determine how and when to use Twitter in the course of reporting the news, and news organizations have no uniform best practices to guide them in their adoption of Twitter as a reporting tool.
  2. A standard set of hashtags for news reporting.  Hashtags – a word or compound phrase preceded by a hash or pound sign (#) – have become widely used in social media, particularly Twitter, to denote a concept or topic. Media have adopted hashtags to categorize and drive reader engagement. However, hashtags could be used, more importantly, to describe the status of a breaking story.  The proposed hashtag standard, then, could be used by readers to understand the state of breaking news.
  3. A cloud- and mobile-based software platform to source, report, publish, and measure breaking stories.  While a number of applications aggregate Twitter feeds and support Twitter publishing, no one tool provides a comprehensive and professional tool that enables newsrooms to use Twitter as a modern-day “police scanner” to identify breaking and trending news; validate, verify and source facts; add context directly or from other data sources, publish in short or long form to and through a variety of platforms, and measure the impact of those published news stories.  Such a tool will enable news organizations to leverage crowd sourced information more effectively while providing the critical context to can make stories – and the media brand – more comprehensive, credible, and trustworthy. 

In the second half of my fellowship, I will be developing (and publishing here) additional detail and definition to each of these three components, describing the use cases, minimum functionality, and comprehensive feature sets to make this comprehensive platform a viable tool for professional media organizations.  Ultimately, the objective of this work is to invert the model of Twitter, as it is understood today, from a micro-blog publishing tool into a highly-useful and effective management system for real-time news gathering, reporting, and publishing.

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