Making the inside of the newsroom as big as the outside

Submitted by Ted Takacs on Tue, 02/01/2005 - 09:08.

Making the inside of the newsroom as big as the outside

News-Record.com

Edward Cone
News & Record

1-30-05

 

 

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 another wing.

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, efcone [at] mindspring [dot] comefcone [at] mindspring [dot] com) writes a column for the News & Record most Sundays.

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