Can we find clues about the future of news and journalism in the way a link-sharing site like Reddit operates? David Weinberger, co-author of the seminal Web 2.0 book The Cluetrain Manifesto, took a look at that question over the weekend and came to the conclusion that yes, we can — not that Reddit is the future of news, necessarily, but that it could be part of a potential future for media and journalism. Weinberger’s argument has some merit to it, and it’s a good reminder that the eventual replacement for what we see as the mainstream news media may look very different from what we are used to.
As Weinberger describes in his post, Reddit has developed a number of interesting features, in addition to simply allowing users to share and comment on links to interesting or quirky articles from around the web — something that other sites like Digg (which has seen a dramatic decline in traffic recently, after a traumatic redesign) and Fark also do. In Reddit’s case, however, it has also added some quasi-journalistic features, such as “Today I Learned” and the popular “I Am A… Ask Me Anything” series.
In “Today I Learned,” users at Reddit post facts that are interesting in some way, or that run counter to conventional wisdom. While this is similar to what many newspapers and other traditional media outlets do, there is no editorial control over the “facts” that are posted. Instead, the Reddit community fact-checks the information after the post goes up (some journalists would, no doubt, argue that this isn’t the way newspapers work, but in many cases, newspaper and magazine articles are also fact-checked and verified by commenters).
The more interesting of the Reddit features, however, is the IAMA series. In these, a user posts a comment that describes themselves in some way, and offers to answer any question from the Reddit community. Some recent examples included a woman with a serious disease, a man who recently sold his company for millions of dollars, a writer who worked on The Simpsons TV show , and a U.S. Navy officer serving on a submarine. The quality of comments and responses varies widely, but as Weinberger notes:
[I]t’s not exactly “60 Minutes.” So what? This is one way citizen journalism looks. At its best, it asks questions we all want asked, unearths questions we didn’t know we wanted asked, asks them more forthrightly than most American journalists dare, and gets better — more honest — answers than we hear from the mainstream media.
And while the “Today I Learned” feature only gets the fact-checking that interested commenters provide, the “Ask Me Anything” series is moderated by administrators at Reddit — in other words, editors — who in many cases will ask the person submitting to the interview to verify their identity in some way (the discussion itself is also moderated for offensive comments, as all Reddit threads are).
Reinventing community journalism?
I agree with Weinberger that this looks and feels a lot like a form of community journalism, or “crowd-powered” journalism. At the newspaper I used to work for, we used a live-blogging tool called Cover It Live (now owned by Demand Media) to host live discussions with people in the news — eyewitnesses to a news event, scientists who released research reports, and other newsmakers of various kinds — in which readers would ask questions and have them answered.
The IAMA feature at Reddit feels very similar, and it also feels a little like what occurs over at Quora, where people in the news often respond to direct questions from users (Quora has also recently started setting up actual interviews). Are these things inherently different or less valuable because they don’t involve a newspaper or occur at a mainstream media website? I don’t think so.
Many people, including (but not limited to) traditional journalists and media-industry players, think the replacement for newspapers and magazines and other mainstream entities will look more or less the same as the things they are replacing — that the replacement for a community newspaper will look like a newspaper, and so on. But that may not be the case at all. Some communities may get their news from Facebook, or a local blog, or a discussion forum on Topix.net, or from something like Reddit. That may not be great for the newspapers, which used to fill that niche, but the communities themselves may be better off, or at least not inconvenienced.
As Weinberger notes, what sites like Reddit and Quora do very well is take advantage of the social elements of the news and media — in many cases, far better than their traditional media competitors. This is just a small part of the disruption that the media industry is undergoing, which includes the rise of collaborative tools and the explosion of non-journalistic sources via social-media platforms like Twitter, such as the man who live-tweeted the raid on Osama Bin Laden.
Obviously, Reddit and its ilk aren’t a replacement for investigative journalism, or foreign reporting, or any of the other valuable things that major newspapers like the New York Times or the Washington Post provide. But they can be players in a much broader journalistic ecosystem, and they have lessons to teach traditional media players, if they want to listen.