How has technology changed news reporting?

I’ve been thinking a lot over the last couple of months about news. In fact somewhere within me is brewing a book on the way that the Internet and technology has changed news so when the Digital Production BuZZ asked me to comment on the subject this week, it forced me to put some of the thoughts into a coherent form. Hopefully last night’s interview (my segment starts 20 minutes in) was, but I’d like to share those thoughts with you here.

I think most people are aware that the newspaper industry, in particular, is in trouble. The Internet and modern technology have changed the way we get and consume news. It’s also changed the way the way the news itself is gathered.

There are several ways that the Internet ¬†and technology have changed news and I’m sure my thoughts here are going to only skim the surface. First, a little history. Back in the days PI (Pre-Internet) – really just on 15 years ago – news was hard to come by. We didn’t get information internationally, or even nationally, without the newspaper and to a lesser degree radio and Television but mostly the newspaper. The entire contents of an hour-long evening news bulletin would not take up the space of the front page of most newspapers of record, so it was to newspapers we looked for local, national and international news.

I used to be a 3-paper-a-day man back in Australia. The local newspaper for local news; the State-Capital based newspaper of record and the National financial news for, well national financial news. (I was a Fellow of the Australian Institute of Company Directors in those days, and had a keen interest in such things.)

I haven’t read a newspaper on a regular basis in 10 or more years! These days I get my news via RSS into an aggregator. My general (local, national, and international) news comes from eight major sources: AP, LA Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, NY Times, CNET, Sydney Morning Herald and Yahoo Technology News across two countries. But I’m only interested in a fraction of what they report.

But these are just eight of the nearly 300 RSS feeds that feed me the news I’m really interested in. No newspaper would ever be likely to give me that personalized look at the world as it evolves. Plus, I don’t have to wait 24 hours to get “aged news” (as Jason Jones put it on The Daily Show).

Now, back PI we needed the same AP article reproduced in the local paper in each market because that’s how we got the news. These days we only need the source – the original source which is rarely a newspaper or AP – and a link. It annoys me that the same story appears 20 times or more in one set of news feeds, duplicated from the same AP article and rarely with any editorial influence or rewriting.

In fact, I think you’ll find a good portion of most papers are simple rewrites of press releases or AP stories, with very little real reporting being done at all.

Blog aggregators like the Huffington Post and to an increasing degree, AOL who has more than doubled the number of reporters in the last year hiring those discarded by mainstream media, are creating their own reporting and commentary networks. News is coming directly from the source. We don’t need an AP or NYT outpost in Iran during an uprising. We get news from Iran, from The Tehran Bureau or Global Voices Online (a blog aggregator who knows which bloggers to trust).

As an indication of how much the news industry has changed, The Tehran Bureau, published by volunteers out a small suburban house in Massachusetts, has had very accurate and detailed information about what is going on in Iran while the mainstream media have been sidelined by the officials in the country and not able to report. Their information was being quoted and “reported” by mainstream media who can’t get coverage from their traditional channels.

None of this could happen without the Internet infrastructure and specific technologies that sit on top of it, and sometimes link into other technologies like the cellular phone network’s SMS system.

It was a blogger who bought down Dan Rather by revealing that the papers purporting to reveal irregularities with President George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard were fake. There are dozens of such incidents where bloggers,with time and the Internet at their disposal, have broken dozens of stories, with more accuracy and greater detail than the mainstream media. (Frankly the accuracy rate of mainstream media is pretty appalling.)

It was a cell phone recording that affected the balance of power in the Senate in the 2006 mid-term elections when a Democrat staffer recorded George Allen’s infamous “Maccaca” comment that, arguably, lost him his almost certain return to the Senate.

It was the cell phone video of “Neda” being shot in the civil disobendience after the Iranian election that helped inspire more people to come out in opposition to the Government of the country.

With millions and millions of cell phones in consumer’s hands it’s now more likely than not that a camera will be at the scene of a major incident. The first picture of Flight 1549 in the Hudson was from Janis Krums’ iPhone on the ferry that was first on the scene to pick up the passengers. Naturally he shared the photo via Twitter. (It was 34 minutes later that MSNBC interviewed him.)

Twitter was first to break the news, again. People have sent tweets from within the midst of the news, including instances where people have tweeted their involvement in a disaster like Mike Wilson, a passenger on board Continental’s Flight 1404, which skidded off the runway at Denver airport and burst into flames. Mike tweeted right after he escaped out of the plane’s emergency chutes and posted a picture of the foam-covered aircraft long before any traditional media was even aware of the accident.

When a Turkish Airlines Boeing landed short and broke apart at Amsterdam’s Schipol, the first word to the public was a Tweet, sent out by a fellow who lives near the airport. (FlightGlobal.com)

Twitter has become a major news source, such that there are now sites, like BreakingTweets.com, dedicated to breaking news on Twitter as a news site in addition to Twitter’s own Breaking News page. If you want the up-to-the minute news, you follow Twitter it seems.

Even if newspapers and the Associated Press ultimately fail, as they are most likely to, I still see a bright future for journalism, just not in the traditional places.

There is one more aspect to “news and the Internet” and that’s the social one. Many of the source I subscribe to in my RSS reader are bloggers who write in the space. I may miss an article or resource but Scott Simmons (on his own site or at ProVideoCoalition.com), Oliver Peters, Larry Jordan, Shane Ross, Lawrence (Larry) Jordan, John Chapell, or Norm Hollyn are there to find the things I miss and bring them to my attention. (Of course, usually with some insightful writing in between.)

I don’t have to read everything or be everywhere because the social networks I participate in create a new network far more valuable to me than the best efforts of the Associated Press!

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