Beyond the future of journalism

Predictably, the panel at last week’s Future of Journalism discussion at the Frontline Club didn’t reach any firm conclusion as to the industry’s path ahead. Mary Hamilton has a good commentary here and BBC College of Journalism has a write-up here. Raymond Snoddy discusses Twitter’s role in the profession here.

My own view is that there are many exciting futures ahead, with the development and increased recognition of digital tools. The economic question is more troubling of course, and while the big media companies may still have pots of money it isn’t always used to support quality journalism. Regional newspaper journalists are feeling that particularly keenly.

When addressing the question of building better quality content, it’s more interesting, I think, to categorise news and commentary by publishers’ aim and style, rather than their chosen media form. Good journalism may be found in things not called journalism. That is to say, a more positive vision for journalism may be seen through mySociety’s range of sites and a multiplicity of open data projects (eg openlyLocal), rather than (some) inward looking newspapers, frequently limited by traditional news formats (eg. finding the case study for the story, rather than the other way around). At a conference I attended later in the week, participants talked about ‘small media’ which helped avoid slipping into that boring and pointless blogger v journalist debate.

In my own field, media law research, I’ve heard people raises concerns with the state of newspaper court reporting and the demise of the legal correspondent. But at the same time, lawyers and legal commentators are reporting and discussing more information online than ever. Sure, legal blogs are funded differently from traditional media organisations, but they’re also part of the future of journalism. (I think all of this links to something a recent POLIS research report calls Networked Journalism).

Anyway, there’s a book out on the whole topic and I’ve written a chapter about Twitter. The book is called ‘Face the Future; Tools for the Modern Media Age’ edited by John Mair and Richard Lance Keeble (Abramis £17.95). This is an opening extract from my bit.

Battle of (t)wits? Using Twitter as a journalistic tool

Judith Townend

Newspapers love to talk about Twitter. A search for the word Twitter in national newspapers returns over 3,000 articles for the past year, too many for the Nexis® UK database to count – 1,696 in one month alone. Twitter has appeared in 900 national newspaper headlines in the last year, while 24 articles in the same period refer to “Twitter twits” (see, for example, the Sun 2010). “Twit” may be a milder term than the one David Cameron chose to describe users of the service (Siddique and Agencies 2009), but it is an unfair label. Generalising about Twitter users is as pointless an exercise as uniformly describing all people who pick up the telephone, or appear on television. Twitter is a communication tool; it is the way it is used that defines whether it is a productive or daft activity. This chapter attempts to show the different ways Twitter is being used by journalists, both effectively and ineffectively, and argues that while Twitter does host a lot of trivial activity by “twits”, it also gives opportunity to create good journalism and enables better communication with the world outside the newsroom.

Part of the process

As Jeff Jarvis has outlined, journalism’s product is not perfect, despite the popular myth, and blogging facilitates “beta journalism” in which writers admit what they don’t know, as well as what they do, and invite collaborations that will help improve their work (Jarvis 2009a). “Online, the story, the reporting, the knowledge are never done and never perfect,” he writes. In his view, that does not mean that bloggers “revel in imperfection” or have no standards:

It just means that we do journalism differently, because we can. We have our standards, too, and they include collaboration, transparency, letting readers into the process, and trying to say what we don’t know when we publish – as caveats – rather than afterward – as corrections (ibid).

Twitter is an ideal tool to use in this “beta journalism” process: it can be used to let readers and followers know what you are looking for, to receive tip-offs and ideas and to publicise your work once it is finished. Some journalists have also experimented with conducting interviews by Twitter (Townend 2009a) although this method has its limitations. Not only is it difficult to express an idea in 140 characters, it can be difficult to co-ordinate the timing of answers and questions and involve onlooker contributions. Newspaper columnists have frequently mocked the limits and triviality of Twitter updates – sometimes before reversing their opinion of the service (cf. Knight 2008 and Johncock 2010). However, the word limit is longer than many news headlines and subheadlines and photo captions. Furthermore, the information contained within one tweet can be far more extensive because hyperlinks to additional content can be included in the message.

An extract from Face the Future; Tools for the Modern Media Age’ edited by John Mair and Richard Lance Keeble (Abramis £17.95).

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