Why The Microblog Could Be The Logical Next Step For Journalism

By now, it’s no revelation that print media is on the decline.

Since the advent of the blogosphere in the late 1990s, bloggers have been able to reach an audience of a scope, and with an editorial freedom, that traditional journalists only dreamed of. Today’s news giants have jumped on the blogging bandwagon— the New York Times alone hosts nearly 60 blogs— and reaped the benefits of an institution that many thought, and still think, spells their demise.

The wailing and gnashing of teeth over the supposed death of journalism, as a number of prominent figures in journalism and the blogosphere have shared, belies the already noteworthy accomplishments and future potential for the improvement of news-related content production and distribution. As Michael Cervieri, producer of The Future Journalism Project and adjunct professor at Columbia University, notes, the speed and hyper-locality bloggers wield should serve as, “an early warning system,” rather than a source of competition for the news industry. The distance between bloggers and journalists should not be diminished, then, but utilized. “It is the role of the journalist,” Cervieri claims, “to listen to, understand, and learn from the community, and take his or her reporting from there.”

An example he gives is how experts on nuclear energy have weighed in on the current situation in Japan, and also how a variety of bloggers have helped to shed light on the tumult in the Middle East. While the argument (and it is a valid one) exists that blogging has opened up the internet even more for ranters and ravers to express, and get attention for, their unqualified opinions, the ways in which news sources have used blogs to inform drown out the less desirable and sometimes offensive voices. People don’t vilify magazines because of the existence of Star or The Enquirer, so neither should blogs be looked down upon because of a few bad apples. News sources can thus benefit from embracing the “good” types of blogs, and what they offer in terms of educated opinion and in-depth analysis.

The logical next step for journalism, then, means departing from its traditional role as the news breaker, and moving more towards synthesis of and commentary on events that bloggers may lack the breadth of scope and sources to provide.

Even blogs, however, with their gaining prominence and authority in the news world, are not untouchable. Recently, there has been more and more talk of the rise of the microblog, with sites such as Twitter and Tumblr leading the way, and how these relatively new modes of expression are causing the decline of traditional blogs the way blogs contributed to the withering away of print media.

Microblogging sites, especially Twitter, are beginning to leave their mark on the news industry in as profound a way as blogs have. As Felix Salmon, financial journalist and blogger for Reuters, observes, Twitter has “given journalists a much more human voice,” in effect shifting the focus more from the news itself to how it is said, and who says it. These new platforms, then, are a way for reporters and columnists to reach further into people’s personal lives, as they become individuals we check in with every day, and, in the case of Twitter, multiple times a day. They are also a way for the news to swing back towards social and government action as a response to content, as in the days of muckraker journalism in the early 20th century.

Salmon further explains the complicated position blogging is in: “it’s been replaced by Twitter and Facebook, on the micropublishing end of things, and by big professional sites like Business Insider or Huffington Post, at the other end of the spectrum.” What’s left as the easiest and quickest way for people to get their voice heard, then, are microblogging sites like Twitter and Tumblr. Mark Coatney, Director/Media Evangelist at Tumblr explains, “Traditional blog platforms are chiefly designed to do one thing–write a blog post, give it a title, add photos, multimedia, tags, etc., and then publish— and while they do it very well, it often means there’s a big barrier between thought and publication. The original idea behind Tumblr is drastically reduce that friction— you can just post a photo, if that’s all you want, or a video, or a snippet of text, etc.” This, he claims, is part of the reason blogs are on the decline: Coatney also notes that over 50% of new Tumblr bloggers continue to frequently post to their blogs three months later, which is much higher than the usual numbers for traditional blogging. He provides this example of how media providers (NBC in this case) are using Tumblr to provide the most relevant and compelling news to its followers.

The ease of community creation is one reason for the enduring popularity of microblogging, and a hint to news providers who want to not only stay afloat, but thrive: “Tumblr gives a lot of positive reinforcement to bloggers— every time someone likes your post, or reblogs it, you get an immediate notification in your dashboard; I think this really encourages people to continue blogging,” Coatney explains.

These practices, on top of building lasting communities, are able to access much broader ones than traditional news and even blogs could hope to foster. Coatney notes, “As microblogging has become a global phenomenon, (there has been) a move toward things that are universal— Tumblr for instance, has nearly 55 per cent of its audience coming from outside the U.S.; the primary mode of posting are image-based posts. One reason for that is that, while I can’t read Portuguese, I can follow a Tumblr blog in Brazil that posts mainly pictures and still get a lot out of it.” This kind of breadth of perspective on content could open up entirely new possibilities for the news industry and its potential audience.

The future isn’t all bright, however: hyper-locality, which, as FOX Business Network anchor Brian Sullivan notes, in the content arena refers to issue-specific focus as well as geographic location, may lead to an effective cordoning off of different groups of people according to their interests or political stance. Michael Cervieri expresses his worries about the harmful side effects of journalism’s evolution: “What concerns me most is the push toward customised and personalised news as a technological holy grail. My worry is that increased customisation will lead to increasingly closed information silos where people are only hearing about what they want to hear about, and from angles and perspectives that they’re comfortable with. As that increases, I think you’ll see increased civil and political fragmentation as there’s no common ground to discuss the important issues of the day.” Instead of the grand levelling and equalizing many have praised the rise of citizen journalism for, these trends towards short snippet updates and tailor-made news may serve to drive people apart. As if we need more acrimony and divisiveness in the public sphere.

So, the question remains: whither journalism? Because news production and consumption in the form of 140-character updates and video clips continues to grow in popularity, traditional text-and-photo articles may have to change. One up-and-coming combination of image and news is the infographic (here’s an example). It is highly probable that as Twitter and Tumblr continue to shape how content is consumed, the actual content itself will shift towards conveying information in easy-to-digest forms like this one.

Despite the shift in emphasis from reliability to immediacy and aesthetics, Brian Sullivan argues that “Ultimately, even with all this new technology, real honest to goodness relationships and reporting still matter the most. Real news can only come from the people who make it.” If this is the case, people will still look to the established holders of authority for the truth. Those with the credibility must still strive, however, to incorporate new technologies and the voices that arise with them.

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