In a piece in the New York Times on the weekend, media writer David Carr took a look at News Corp. billionaire Rupert Murdoch’s use of Twitter, and how the media mogul has used it as both a bully pulpit and a soapbox. Carr’s fellow media writer Brian Stelter, however, has a somewhat different view: at a conference on social media at Columbia University, Stelter said that “sources going direct,” as Murdoch has done with Twitter, is one of most disruptive changes that have hit journalism in the digital age, and the thing that “keeps me up at night.” Stelter is right to be concerned — it is clearly a paradigm shift. But is it good for journalism?
As Carr’s story points out, even though the News Corp. founder has only been on Twitter for a relatively short time, Murdoch’s tweets have already provided a huge amount of enjoyment (and ammunition) for media buffs, Murdoch-haters and everyone in between — including media reporters like Carr and Stelter. From his typo-laden missives about Barack Obama caving in to anti-piracy activists over SOPA and PIPA to his Google-bashing and attacks on Governor Cuomo, the combative mogul has made things a lot more interesting. He’s even apologized for the failure of MySpace:
First blogs, now Twitter and Google Hangouts
Murdoch’s ranting on Twitter seems harmless enough. So why does this kind of activity keep Brian Stelter up at night? Because it is just another example of the “sources going direct” — to use a phrase that blogging pioneer Dave Winer coined some time ago to describe what happens when those who are directly involved in the news have the ability to publish their own thoughts, and reach readers and viewers directly. First, that ability came through blogging, and now it has been amplified even further with Twitter and other social tools. It’s all part of what Om has called the “democratization of distribution.”
In addition to saying it keeps him up at night, Stelter said that this ability for sources to go direct is “the generational issue of our time for journalists.” He didn’t elaborate on why he thinks this, but I have a few ideas: for one thing, it removes the need for the journalist as middleman or information gatekeeper. In the past, a journalist could have made a pretty good name for themselves by simply getting access to Rupert Murdoch and quoting his thoughts on Barack Obama or Google — but now, he is providing those himself.
Murdoch is only the latest example of this phenomenon, of course. It arguably began with blogging, which allowed other prominent newsmakers like billionaire sports-team owner Mark Cuban to reach a broad audience directly (Cuban even published his own email interviews with journalists, so he could correct the record). It has continued with early adopters like basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, who announced the news of his retirement on Twitter through a service called Tout. Celebrities have also made use of it to get their own stories out to their fans — or to simply rant, Courtney Love-style.
In the end, this should be good for serious journalism
Over the past year, we have seen this phenomenon accelerate to the point where the White House is doing live discussions on YouTube, taking questions from Twitter during a “town hall,” and now is doing Google+ “hangouts” where the president responds to citizens with concerns about the country. This has gone so far beyond the fireside radio chats that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used to communicate his message that it’s almost hard to fathom how much has changed in just a few decades:
So what is the job of a media or sports or political reporter now? There’s no question that we still need them, and in fact we may need them even more — but now we need them to filter and make sense of what is out there, and to probe beneath the surface for the real meaning behind what Murdoch says on Twitter or what a basketball star says about themselves or their career. In other words, we need less of a focus on “scoops” that are three sentences long and have a half-life of five minutes, and more smart analysis. So the reality is that all of those reporting jobs have gotten a lot harder.
In the end, however, that is probably a good thing for journalism — and for consumers of journalism as well. Those who only wish to be distracted by the 140-character rantings of a billionaire now have a source for that, and those who want a little more depth will hopefully get some of that as well. For media companies whose focus is solely on those micro-scoops and quotes from celebrities, however, the future doesn’t look so bright.