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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Journalism in a Wikified world

By Paul Gillin

Next spring, colleges and universities will graduate thousands of new journalism students. They’ll go forth into newsrooms across the country to practice the skills that have served journalism well for over a century. They’ll know how to interview sources, summarize their findings and write a few hundred words of clear prose in an inverted pyramid style.  These are the skills that journalism schools have taught for decades. And they will be almost meaningless in the world these newly minted journalists will soon inhabit.

Journalism changed forever starting in early 2004. At that time, there were about a million people worldwide writing the online personal diaries called blogs.  There was no MySpace, no Facebook, no Digg and no YouTube. Apple’s iPod had sold less than a half-million units. The Internet was emerging from a two-year hangover.  Few people saw the explosive changes that were about to take place.

Three years later, the online world is a very different place. More than 100 million people have created blogs, and a third of them update their blogs regularly. MySpace is so embedded in the psyche of America’s teens that nearly everyone under the age of 18 has an account. More than 65,000 videos are uploaded to YouTube every day. New services like Twitter and Jaiku allow ordinary citizens to publish information globally using cell phones. In the summer of 2007, prominent blogger Robert Scoble wrote of learning about an earthquake in Mexico on Twitter an hour before it was reported in the news media.

The media has called this phenomenon Web 2.0, but it’s basically a revolution in personal publishing. For the first time in history, ordinary citizens have the means to publish to a global audience cheaply and easily. Journalism will never be the same.

A venerable craft

The craft of reporting as we know it was refined in the days when information was scarce and the purveyors of information were the few who could afford the substantial capital investments needed to deliver stacks of newspapers and broadcast streams to the masses. In an era of information scarcity, knowing what to cut out was at least as important a part of journalism as knowing what to keep.

The classic approach to reporting is error-prone, wasteful and full of subjective decisions, but until recently, it was the best we could do. Here’s a summary of how the process typically works:

Armed with an assignment or story idea, the reporter strikes out find and interview knowledgeable sources.  Typically, 90 percent or more of the information she gathers never appears in the final story. The reporter attempts to synthesize facts and opinions into a single account. Despite the fact that she is often less informed about the topic than any of the sources, we put our faith in her because she is impartial and trained to do this.

When the reporter writes, she must treat her audience as a single entity, even though she knows that they have a diverse range of interests and characteristics. A story about Oriental rugs, for example, is of different relevance to a weaver, a home decorator and a child labor attorney. But it doesn’t matter; the story can only be written one way.

If the published story contains an error, there is little that can be done about it. A letter to the editor or a correction may show up several days later, by which time most readers have forgotten the original story anyway.  If the story is picked up by a wire service, the error is picked up as well.

A new approach to journalism

The practice described above was acceptable in an information-starved world. However, many of the structural limitations of traditional media are now gone. Information is plentiful, the tools of online publishing are cheap and the networks to deliver information are fast and reliable. There is simply no reason to continue doing things the way we have done them.

Consider how a reporter might tackle a story in the future. She contacts a source to request an interview.  The source agrees under the condition that the conversation be recorded, posted on a website and linked to from the published article. Or perhaps the interview is conducted via e-mail or instant messenger, creating an archived trail that can be published for any one who’s interested to read. The reporter’s notes are, in effect, online for all to see.

When the reporter writes, she still synthesizes information, but she also weaves in links to source material, blogger commentary and background articles. Readers are given pointers to additional material that may appeal to their particular interests. Readers can also comment on the story, adding information and perspective.

If there’s a mistake, corrections are instantly made online. However, the chance for a mistake is much lower because source material is easily available. Over time, the story is updated and embellished as new information surfaces. There’s no need to repeat the facts over and over because earlier accounts are always available. The reporter and editor become, essentially, aggregators of information.

This radical new approach to journalism is actually being practiced right now. Wikipedia, the massive online reference work that anyone can author, is perhaps the most prominent example. Wikipedia’s community model, in which there are no named editors, has created a resource that is more than eight times the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica and of nearly equal quality, according to independent studies.

What’s often overlooked on Wikipedia is its current events coverage. Using content assembled from mainstream media, first-hand accounts, amateur photographers and bloggers, the site is remarkably effective at providing comprehensive news and perspective. Its coverage of the October, 2007 California fires is an outstanding example of this.

Other experiments in this new form of journalism are proliferating, including, Northwest Voice and Korea’s  Mainstream media like USA Today and The Washington Post are experimenting with reader comments on published news. These publications are on the leading edge of the new journalism.  However, they are still in the minority. Most newspapers don’t even include hyperlinks in the stories they publish online.

Some people refer to this new approach to newsgathering as citizen journalism.  This concept has drawn skepticism and even derision from the mainstream media, who argue that ordinary citizens lack the skills needed to produce well-structured, impartial accounts.  They’re right, but they miss the point. Citizen journalism is not about replacing reporters with ordinary citizens; it’s about supplementing the work of professional journalists with the newly accessible observations and insights of interested people. The result of this interaction is a new brand of journalism that is more comprehensive, accurate and reflective of the varied needs of the readership than the model that was constrained by the limitations of print and broadcast media.

We’re on the verge of an exciting reinvention of journalism enabled by personal publishing. The transition will be tumultuous and even painful, but the result will be well worth the effort.

PAUL GILLIN is a writer and social media consultant whose 2007 book, The New Influencers, documents the impact of new media on markets and institutions.

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