Monday, June 22, 2009

The Tip Of The Spear

Blogs are Id. I suppose if you continue the analogy, staff reports are the Ego and features/columns/
investigatives are the SuperEgo ~griftdrift in a conversation with a traditional journalist

Developing a philosophy on media in our rapidly changing world is evolutionary, but a revolution may have shown us the way.

All discussions of media in a world of blogs, twitter, facebook and whatever comes next center on the question of "how do we make this work?"

For the moment, let's put aside the issue of how do we make money. No one has the answer and it only muddies the waters.

As we continued to navel gaze on the slow death of newspapers, the eventual death of the 6:00 news and the impact of both on our democracy, events in Iran accelerated the conversation far past our current mutterings and hand wringing.

Although many have framed the Iranian unrest as another "Twitter grows up" moment (they are coming with more regularity aren't they?), the side story of how CNN was apparently caught flat-footed is more interesting from an evolving media perspective.

In the opening days of the protests, CNN, who famously made its bones breaking huge international stories, was noticeably absent. Filling the void were the blogs of Andrew Sullivan, Nico Pitney and Juan Cole. Sullivan's place became a practical stream of conscience of every raw tidbit the maelstrom ejected.

As Twitter became the tool of choice for protesters, information which had been a trickle became a torrent.

Of course, both were rife with exactly the type of content traditional media decries as the downfall of new media - items were impossible to confirm and possibly blatantly false. The great weakness of new media is the possibility of manipulation by an unseen hand. As Iran devolved into a full blown cyberwar, it became nigh impossible to tell the truth from the truth spinners. The old internet adage of believing everything is false until proven otherwise certainly applied.

Sullivan and his cohorts were very clear that information passed along was unverified and should be taken as such.

Finally, into the breach stepped CNN. As the second week of unrest progressed, CNN with all its resources created an "Iran desk" with reporters interpreting images and speeches from a far, calling contacts in Iran and their greatest resource in these situations, Foreign Editor Christiane Amanpour, on air constantly (notably asking one of the most pointed questions at an Ahmedenijad press conference).

What had been a vast field of clutter was brought under the aegis of a massive media machine and began to resemble structure.

Oddly, the progression of media events in those two weeks mirror a common occurrence in the world of software - the merger of a smaller start-up with a traditional, heavily bureaucratized legacy. The only way these types of mergers work is if the agility of the start-up and the institutional knowledge of the legacy are both leveraged without either losing its identity. Failure occurs when either side insists on lockstep adaptation of a "preferred" culture.

Too often in the past, both sides of the media discussion have opted for the second methodology instead of the first. We recognize that we are not the same but we fail to recognize there is strength in that lack of sameness.

So, it is admission time and I am willing to go first.

We cannot do your job. There will be times when we perform parts of your job and I believe it has been shown in the past three years that we can do it with a level of professionalism and standards that should be acknowledged. But we can't cover a beat as well as you do, at this point we can't conduct investigative pieces as well as you do and we sure as hell can't cover an international conflagration with the level of detail and confirmation needed. We need you and it is far past time we admit this fact.

However, in a world where it grows more likely that a person's first contact with a story is a blog or facebook or twitter, you need us too.

We are the tip of the spear but you are the haft - both needed, one for first contact and one for weight and direction, to enable the whole to reach its target.


Sara said...

Nice post.

If Twitter did not exist, we would only have found out about the atrocities in Iran in drips and drabs that came weeks and months after the fact. The protests would not have been as large or as well organized because of the inability to spread information between protestors in a country locking down communication channels. Foreign journalists were virtually all either expelled or arrested if they tried to cover the story, so there would be no video or breathless man on the street stories. This story that has captivated the U.S. and much of the world would not even really be a hot media story if not for Twitter. It would be tragic history.

I remember so often in the 1990's hearing vague reports of foreign atrocities from friends who relied upon overseas news sources to learn about them. American press almost never covered these stories because they were over and done, or uninteresting to the public (or both) but the time they came to light. East Timor--many have never heard of it, and yet organized genocide occurred there just 10 years ago. How could East Timor's atrocities have been different, or even stopped, if those living there had a way to get the word out and force the eye of the world upon their plight? We'll never know.

If the mainstream media does not acknowledge the extent to which new media came of age with the Iran election protests, then they are truly doomed. Even at a conference I was at last week, people who had never heard of Twitter a month ago were talking about it because of the stories coming out of Iran. They weren't talking about CNN iReport or coverage by the BBC or Al-Jazeera. Just Twitter. The public's eyes have been opened to the possibilities, and mainstream media needs to accept that new media voices are here to stay and part of the story from here on out.

Rusty said...

Nice post. Like the spear metaphor.

I have concluded the haters are going to hate no matter what I say. That's what they do, and that's just fine because they'll be unemployed and out of the discussion soon enough anyway.

They call me Thunder said...

Nice post, but one small quibble.

Sully is and was a journalist currently doing "real journalism" for a "legitimate" news outlet. So using him isn't really a good choice. Maybe even so Mr. Cole as he is a "respected source" and "an expert."

Your point still stands.

PS: I'm not belittling new media, just putting those terms in quotes for...something. They are non judgmental however.

griftdrift said...

Sorry Thunder but I disagree. Sullivan is definitely in a different stratosphere than the rest of us, but his performance over the last two weeks has been as "bloggy" as it gets. And he is starting to receive some criticism (some of it deserved) for throwing every piece of crap against the wall before checking the stickiness.

One of the things that I admire about Sullivan (and wish I could model) is the way he stratifies his work. His blog has a different operating principle from his long form writing (i.e. articles) which is then different from his longer form writing (i.e. his books).

In fact I may have been subconsciously channeling that admiration when I made my original analogy to the traditional journalist.

But bottom line is he is a writer. No matter what the medium. And that's what we could eventually get to. That its about the content, not the medium.

They call me Thunder said...

We aren't really disagreeing bro.

Unless you want to.

SpaceyG said...

On the day you write this post I was able to "place" a blogger (SC politics) on CNN to be a guest expert/interview. It's all in the social media - and how one chooses to participate. Or not.

Moreorless what HST always said about drugs... it works (SM) for me.