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News is like water now — it takes the path of least resistance

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For anyone who has been following the evolution of the media industry over the past several years, the idea that news can find its own path to an audience now — whether it’s directly from a source via the social web or tools like Twitter, or through an alternate outlet like WikiLeaks or the Huffington Post (s aol) — won’t come as any surprise. Judging from a couple of recent columns in the New York Times, even the venerable newspaper of record is coming to terms with this phenomenon, which risks leaving the Grey Lady out in the cold.

The first piece was a column by NYT public editor Margaret Sullivan on the weekend, about the recent explosive NSA revelations, which were reported primarily by the Guardian — a relative newcomer to the U.S. news scene. Sullivan was responding to a number of reader comments asking why the Times had missed this particular bombshell, and wondering whether the newspaper had been approached but had chosen not to publish the story.

News will find its own outlet

New York Times building logo, photo by Rani Molla

As Sullivan explains in her piece, the NYT apparently wasn’t contacted by Snowden. But it’s understandable that some readers would wonder whether the paper had decided not to go with the story, since something similar happened in 2005 with another story about government surveillance: at the urging of the Bush administration, the Times sat on the story for more than a year — something Edward Snowden said influenced his desire not to go to the newspaper with his NSA leak. As Sullivan notes:

“The delay hasn’t been forgotten. The video journalist Laura Poitras, who worked on the N.S.A. stories in both The Post and The Guardian, said the earlier delay by The Times influenced Mr. Snowden’s decision on where to take his information. What’s more, when a video or article released anywhere can go viral in minutes, the outlet is less important.”

Meanwhile, in a separate piece published Sunday, NYT media writer David Carr talks about another story that got away: in this case, the story about Toronto mayor Rob Ford and his alleged crack-smoking behavior, which appeared first on Gawker — and then subsequently in some of Toronto’s major newspapers, which had apparently been working on the story for some time.

Like Sullivan, Carr notes that certain news stories don’t wait for traditional journalistic organizations to get around to reporting them — that “big news forges its own path,” as he puts it. And he also notes that this is just a more recent version of something that has been occurring for some time:

“Traditional news organizations used to be free to break news — or not — in their backyard and on their chosen beats. Now they have to be looking over their shoulder — at everyone. And in virtually every aspect of culture, from business to technology to fashion, the big guys now compete with a range of Web sites that break their share of news through obsessiveness and hyperfocus.”

The path of least resistance


The “hyperfocus” that Carr mentions is an important point. As I argued in a recent post, the Guardian likely got the Snowden leaks in part because of the obsessiveness and focus of Glenn Greenwald, the lawyer-turned-blogger who has devoted much of his writing to cataloguing the government’s malfeasance related to WikiLeaks and whistle-blower Bradley Manning — a point that journalism professor Jay Rosen made in a recent post as well.

In the not-so-distant past, the New York Times was one of the main platforms for breaking this kind of news, and perhaps even the main platform. But given its behavior in cases like the pre-Iraq war reporting of Judith Miller and in the case of the 2005 surveillance story, it’s not surprising that leakers like Snowden might decide to take their story elsewhere — and there are plenty of other outlets for that information, including places like WikiLeaks.

Carr is right that “big news forges its own path.” In a sense, it is like water, which takes the path of least resistance. The New York Times and other outlets used to be the water company, but they are no longer the only outlet — and if they provide too much resistance, the news will flow elsewhere. Whether that is ultimately good or bad for journalism remains to be seen, but it is a fact.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / SoulAD and Flickr user Jan-Arief Purwanto