Friday, January 16, 2009

The 'emergent newsroom'

plane_hudson_krums.jpg This iPhone picture was taken by Janis Krum, a man who happened to be aboard one of the New York ferries that diverted to the scene of yesterday's U.S. Airways crash (or splash) landing in the Hudson River. He published it to Twitter within minutes, in the process scooping every outlet in New York, media center of the universe.

Snapped and published in seconds, Krum's effort is a prime example of citizen journalism, a topic long espoused and delineated by Dan Gillmor. Dan, then a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News, and I had an email exchange on the topic of what I called 'emergent newsrooms' or 'self-assembling media' in the aftermath of the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003.

In that case, shuttle-savvy bloggers contacted retired NASA engineers, did frame-by-frame analysis of video of the launch and came up with the theory - which turned out to be correct - that foam falling from the external tank had been the root cause of Columbia's breakup during reentry - hours or even days ahead of major media. Indeed, many major-media space correspondents were unaware of what had already been researched, written and thoughtfully analyzed on the 'net.

Nowadays, major media rely on citizen Internet resources for coverage of major breaking events. Regard the coverage of a New Year's day shooting by a transit policeman of a man during a scuffle at a Bay Area Rapid Transit station. Both major outlets - KTVU and the San Francisco Chronicle pulled video and frame grabs from cellphone videos posted by bystanders on YouTube.

Amazingly, the web of sites and commentary that springs up around these events tends to find errors and correct them, usually with no central authority. The importance of this mechanism is no small thing: it's pretty clear that old structures like print and broadcast newsrooms are going to disappear sooner than later. Many decry the void that this will leave, but I wonder if the transparency and immediacy of the networked world might not provide a viable, possibly better alternative.

Scott Loftesness posited using the rooms feature in friendfeed to quickly assemble related feeds, blog posts, photo and video, allowing skilled editors (or observant, skeptical readers of any stripe) to provide coverage - there are many other Internet mechanisms available as well.

It remains to be seen if a web of people with day jobs will suffice to do things like track corruption and lawbreaking in government, corporate excess and perform other other truth-sniffing services that have been vital to the survival of democracy for the past two centuries. Self-assembling news works well for events like plane crashes... but could there be a Watergate-style investigation in this brave, new, non-centralized world?

No comments: