Can the trend to 'know more' save journalism?

opinion July 26, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

The social media have taken charge of breaking news, but only the pros can give the stories depth

It took the world seconds to know about the coup in Thailand, even as it was still happening. If someone as far away as Alaska were on Twitter, the news would have come to him instantly. This is no surprise, of course, since the speed of information transmission has been determined for some time now simply by how eager the consumers are to get it. If you’re monitoring your apps, you’ll know about breaking news in India before most Indians.
Just being “the first to know” has already become somewhat old hat, in fact. People no longer boast about being right there when a major news story broke. What counts now is how much of the details you can gather quickly. It doesn't matter that you only found out about the Thai coup 24 hours after the fact as long as you “catch up” cleverly. This shift in news consumption raises fresh questions about how today’s news is “valued” and whether it can help reinvigorate a profession that’s been economically battered almost to extinction.
The “first to know” phenomenon generated by the social media significantly threatened journalism as a whole. Anyone with even a cheap smartphone could ostensibly be better informed than stalwart readers of newspapers. The newspaper reporters themselves now routinely tweet and post fresh news to the social networks, hastening their own passage to irrelevance. The bigger the appetite for fast news, the more the competition is focused on speed. Many newspapers have folded due to declining or static subscription rolls. Some journalists have abandoned time-consuming investigative reportage in favour of fast-and-furious roles in front of the TV camera. There is little depth to the stories we hear and read these days. The race for the basics of “who, what, when and where” has left “why” forgotten in the dust. 
Still, the shift in consumer habits from “first to know” to “most knowledgeable” should, at least for now, help journalists maintain what could be their last stand. It promises to protect the value associated with authoritative new sources that only professionals can access properly. Analytical skills and comprehensive reporting should remain valued elements in the news industry for the time being.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that countless users of the social media are getting better at analysing information too. While professional journalists retain the edge when it comes to informing the public fully, it will be difficult to keep earning money in this business. The school of thought that forecasts doom for mainstream journalism is keen to point out that, once people no longer need to pay for goods and services, they’re highly unlikely to ever pay for them again.
On top of that, not only have the social media taken command of breaking news, some mainstream media outlets now use “robots” to write stories – albeit simplistic data-crunching stories so far. The robotic element is intriguing since it relies on a gamut of information sources that can be robotically researched before the accumulated data are combined into a story. Who provides these “feeds”? Human beings do.
Meanwhile journalists cannot waste time battling future threats. They now have small window of opportunity and must act accordingly, come what may. The public at large, now familiar with being the “first to know”, is likely to demand fuller accounts so that they can be the best informed as well. And journalists know better than anyone how that need can be served – if the “know-first” frenzy hasn’t already deprived them of the necessary skills.