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Summary:

With so much real-time reporting of news events via Twitter, some argue that we no longer need the traditional news article. But while reporting on social networks can be very powerful, we still need someone to make sense of those streams and put them in context.

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Updated: In the wake of a number of events, including the use of Twitter as a real-time reporting tool by New York Times writer Brian Stelter during the aftermath of the recent tornado in Missouri, media theorist and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis has written a post about how the “article” or traditional news story may no longer be necessary. With so much real-time reporting via social networks, he argues that the standard news article has become a “value-added luxury.” But I disagree — while real-time reporting is very powerful, we still need someone to make sense of those streams and put them in context. In fact, we arguably need that even more.

As anyone who has read my posts on social media and the future of media knows by now, I am a big fan of the way that social tools such as Twitter and Facebook and Flickr and YouTube have democratized the production of content of all kinds — journalism and non-journalism. The fact that those on the ground in Tahrir Square and in Libya can tell their own stories to some extent instead of relying on reporters from mainstream media outlets is hugely powerful. And so is the kind of journalism that Brian Stelter did from Joplin, and the way that Andy Carvin of NPR has been using Twitter as a live news-curation tool.

I am also a fan of the concept of “news as a process,” which Jarvis (whom I consider a friend) and others including Doc Searls and media consultant Terry Heaton have been promoting for several years: the idea that instead of something that is produced by media outlets as a kind of finished product, an artefact of an industrial-style approach to the news, journalism now is an ongoing and somewhat messy process. In many cases, rumors are reported, then they are confirmed or debunked over time, details and background and context are added, observers and experts and other sources comment, and so on.

To me, the idea that Twitter or any live-blogging process replaces any of the traditional elements of journalism or the news seems out of step with this concept (Note: Jarvis said that he doesn’t believe Twitter replaces journalism, just that stories are not always necessary). In the course of any news event, whether it’s an earthquake or a shooting or a revolution, there will be times when Twitter makes sense as a tool — as Stelter showed with his reports from Joplin, and as Sohaib Athar showed when he effectively became a journalist for a few hours during the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. But that doesn’t obviate the need for articles or commentary or features.

Jarvis says that the article becomes a “luxury” or by-product of the important part of the process, which I guess is the live-tweeting or live-blogging. But I don’t think that’s the case at all. If anything, in fact, the kind of live reporting that Andy Carvin and others do with Twitter, and the kind Brian Stelter did in Joplin, increases the need for curation and context and background and reporting. Watching the stream of thousands of tweets that Carvin produced during the uprising in Egypt was fascinating and compelling, but it was also overwhelming in terms of the sheer magnitude of data.

In addition to the volume of information Carvin and others were producing, many people who wanted to understand that event probably weren’t on Twitter and weren’t experiencing that flood. Where were the reporters and editors to curate and make sense of that stream?

In his post, Jarvis describes how Postmedia — the Canadian publishing chain to which he is an advisor — had reporters filing Twitter reports live from the campaign trail during the recent Canadian election, with other writers and editors assigned to pull these together into stories. This seems like a smart model to me, and a throwback in some ways to the old days of the newspaper “rewrite desk,” when grizzled editors would take phone calls from correspondents in far-flung bureaus and then cobble those reports together into a story (an analogy Jarvis notes as well in his post).

Twitter doesn’t replace any other form of media or journalism, any more than YouTube replaces television, or Facebook replaces the need for normal human interaction. Twitter is just a tool, like the telephone or the video camera — it doesn’t replace the need for traditional journalists. It may make their jobs slightly different, but we still need people to curate and make sense of that stream. If anything, in fact, we need *more* of them, whether we call them journalists or not, as the amount of information we are trying to consume continues to increase.

Update: In a Facebook comment on this post, Jeff Jarvis takes issue with the headline of this post and some of the comments I make in it, which he describes as a “gross mischaracterization” of his views. In his comment he says:

I do *not* say that the article will no longer be necessary. I say that in some cases it will not be. Huge difference. I say that good articles add perspective and it is in that context that I say they are a luxury that can — and should — add value is hardly pejorative. You seem to fear that I am devaluing the article. I am doing the opposite. I say that articles must add value or we shouldn’t waste precious resources on them.

and later:

You are arguing with someone, Mathew. But it’s not me. I’d very much appreciate including this with the body of the post. That’s because I absolutely do not want to be accused of saying what you say I said. I didn’t say it. I don’t believe it.

Let me just say that I have a lot of respect for Jeff and his views on journalism and the media. However, I still think that by saying articles are in many cases a “luxury” or a “by-product” of live reporting through Twitter and other tools, Jeff is not placing enough emphasis on the context and analysis that articles can provide after the fact. I guess we will have to agree to disagree.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Luc Legay and George Kelly

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  1. All day was Searching for an answer to this question, must agree..with you although you have to work harder to reach your audience and get their attention. So where do you see the future of digital journalism, mainly in curation, rewriting, or further specialization, would love to get your perspective! Short news, in depth analysis?

    1. Mathew Ingram Randa Sunday, May 29, 2011

      All of the above, Randa — thanks for the comment.

  2. changingnewsroom Sunday, May 29, 2011

    I generally agree, although I think what is so cool is that this isn’t a black and white all or nothing thing any more…I think the article still lives along with all kinds of other forms depending on the situation, and you can have anything from live-Tweet only to a context-laden living story like Matt Thompson has long been advocating. Twitter won’t replace the story, as Jarvis does qualify, but in some cases, it or a another similar format that allows for brief updates that can be collected via Storify or similar is more useful. The truth is, a lot of regular, non-news junkies may skim or read just the first couple paragraphs of an article, and for some things, not all things, are just as well served with a series of short bullet points.

    1. I agree, Brizzy — I am all for the flexibility that these tools allow us (or anyone). But I don’t want to lose the context in an always-on stream, and I know Jeff doesn’t either. I feel bad that he thinks I misrepresented his views, because I think we agree on a lot.

      1. Mathew, I would agree that you both agree more than you disagree. And these are thoughts on the “bleeding edge” of new media and journalism development, so it is hardly surprising that they are not so well-worn yet, that the language is still being formed to even talk about these things.

        I see Jeff’s post as trying to make inroads on the larger issue of “The Content Creator’s Dilemma”: Caught between the pincer-like twin threat of Content Overabundance and Content Decay.

        And in the case of journalists in particular, caught between the additional problem of the rise of “Expert-in-field” media (experts blogging directly from fields where previously only journalists would have created content for wider consumption , e.g. Chris Dixon’s blog on startups and angel/VC financing, etc. etc.).

  3. Adam Singer Sunday, May 29, 2011

    And the irony, of course, is that you are reacting to Jeff Jarvis’ blog post about the subject.

    1. How is that ironic? Maybe I’m missing something.

  4. Twitter is not journalism. But it is a new, useful source for journalists. That’s it really. As a consumer of news of all kinds, I don’t even use Twitter as I find it frustrating and slow. Even dare I say painful. I like RSS (and Facebook pages to a lesser extent). Let the journalists pull together a cohesive story and present it to me. Let the journalists work with Twitter as another, useful source. That’s their job, and they do it well.

    1. Someone’s not using Tweetdeck!

  5. You drive a hard bargain, but you’re right. While twitter is effective for social and business updates, and I use it alot for promotion, its no substitute to news. Tv stations will lose the interest of viewers when they begin using twitter as a crutch and not a tool.

  6. Luke Allnutt Sunday, May 29, 2011

    “Watching the stream of thousands of tweets that Carvin produced during the uprising in Egypt was fascinating and compelling, but it was also overwhelming in terms of the sheer magnitude of data.”

    I’m glad you made this point — as don’t think it’s been made enough. I also thought what Carvin was doing was great in many ways, but as a consumer of news I was overwhelmed with the form. Storify makes it better, as there is more curation and selection, but it doesn’t solve the problem for me. I find Twitter to be a great journalists’ tool for sources, community, story ideas, and have seen tweets expertly woven into live blogs (sports coverage surely the model here). But as a way of presenting news, I still find Twitter frustratingly non-linear and messy for my tastes. I guess it’s an evolving process and we still haven’t worked out the best way to curate and package The Stream. Also agree with your end point, by saying articles are a “luxury” it diminishes their value somewhat. Thanks for this interesting post, Matthew, which looks like has sparked an interesting debate.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Luke.

  7. James Barnes Monday, May 30, 2011

    One side-effect of citizen journalism and Twitter reporting might be that the demand for quality actually rises. The popularity of sites like longform.org shows there is growing market for in depth analysis of issues.

  8. Fred Thomas Monday, May 30, 2011

    Twitter could never replace journalism. What Twitter does is alert people of stories and then people search for the articles to nature themselves with the full news.

  9. if u cn rite dis u 2 cn b jrnlst.

    There! Did I fit it in? Bizarro world here we come!

  10. Matthew Potter Monday, May 30, 2011

    I’d have to side with Jeff Jarvis on this one. I generally keep Tweetdeck open in the background of my daily going-ons. Article headlines and snippets are constantly flowing in. I get updates of information from sources like the Globe and Mail (Canadian), CNN, HuffPost, etc… and the majority of the time the headlines are enough. This form of content consumption allows me to stay up-to-date but also allows me to have that link to further information when I want to delve into it deeper.

    I don’t believe that Jarvis’ intents were to dismiss or, as he states, devalues articles. Rather, that social media platforms have become a method of providing the information to consumers without the need for long articles. The larger, higher value only because there is most content to be had, articles that are greater than the 140 chars minus url are still of great importance and give context and detail where the snippet provides instant awareness, something that previously was missing from the journalism.

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