What Journalism Is Like Now: Working With 2,000 Sources

We’ve written many times at GigaOM about how the media industry is being disrupted, and how that is being caused in part by the “democratization of distribution” that social-media tools such as Twitter and Facebook allow. Now a young journalist who works for Sky News in Britain has put the reality of that into words in a blog post at the BBC’s College of Journalism website. In the post, Neal Mann describes how much his job has changed in just the past few years — and how a key part of it involves interacting with “a personalized wire service” of more than 2,000 sources he has curated via Twitter.

Mann says when he trained as a journalist five years ago, his use of social media was limited to posting the occasional picture of himself to Facebook, and Twitter “wasn’t even on my radar.” Now, he says, as a desk editor for the international TV network Sky News (s nws), the real-time information network has become a crucial part of the way he does his job. That job used to entail checking photo feeds, news wires, emails and reports from journalists in the field, he says — and now it involves checking real-time news reports and tips from sources on Twitter as well.

[M]y Twitter feed is a personalised wire service, except, unlike the traditional wires, I have to interact with it… my followers have become an extra tipping service. I often receive tweets from followers along the lines of ‘have you seen this’ or ‘check their timeline’, and this interaction has proved invaluable.

The interaction aspect that Mann mentions is the key to how this process has changed: no longer is a reporter or editor simply consuming reports that come in from news wires and other official sources — now journalists have to interact with those sources in order to confirm information and get to the heart of a news event. Doing this is more work, Mann says, but he realises it is simply the way journalism works now:

Constantly interacting and monitoring a Twitter feed of more than 2,000 sources plus a variety of different lists isn’t easy, but there is no other option if I want to work in this role at a 21st century news organisation.

Mann goes on to say that his Twitter feed has provided him with “everything from tips to official statements, the majority of which have been published on Twitter before anywhere else.” And he’s not the only one who has made this realization. A reporter I know who had just started working in India joined Twitter and quickly became ecstatic about how the real-time information network let her find knowledgeable sources for her reporting. In one case, Twitter connected her to a photographer she needed in a remote region of India in a matter of hours, something the photo desk at her newspaper had spent weeks trying to do.

Andy Carvin of National Public Radio is the most famous practitioner of the kind of journalism that Mann is describing. As Carvin has detailed in a number of interviews, he has fine-tuned a process of using Twitter lists of credible sources, doing real-time fact checking, reaching out to sources directly and aggregating news on the fly. The New York Times (s nyt) has called him a “personal newswire,” and that’s effectively what he has become.

Although it looks and feels like a new kind of journalism, what Carvin and Mann are doing really isn’t that different from what reporters have always done — but the scale of what they are doing now has changed. Instead of one or two sources, now there are hundreds or even thousands, most of whom are unknown or even anonymous. One of the biggest challenges for this kind of reporting is the simple verification of facts and assessments of who’s credible and who isn’t. As Mann notes:

[J]ournalists need social media as much as social media needs journalists; people want news fast but they want to know what’s true and what’s rumour.

In addition to fact-checking skills, which is one thing that traditional journalists have to offer, it’s just as important is to have someone who is a subject-matter expert — Carvin’s reporting on Egypt was improved hugely by the fact that he already had plenty of contacts in the country from his visits there, and knew a lot of credible sources on Twitter, who in turn helped point him to other credible sources. This is what we talk about when we talk about the power of the network to act as an information source and an information filter. In a talk on Tuesday, the director-general of the Al-Jazeera network said:

[T]he users of Twitter and Facebook and YouTube are our correspondents

The important point to remember is that none of this requires that someone actually be a journalist, either by training or by profession. Mann is right that journalists are needed to filter and verify — but the reality of media today is that anyone now has the tools to do this, which is why there is so much controversy over who is a journalist and who isn’t. Carvin likes to talk about “random acts of journalism” such as the Pakistani IT consultant who live-tweeted the raid on Osama bin Laden, and that is a great way of thinking about it. Almost anyone can create their own personal news wire of 2,000 sources and create some journalism, and that is fundamentally a good thing for the media business.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users See-ming Lee and Yan Arief Purwanto