Our editors & readers talk
Rethinking rights, accreditation, and journalism itself in the age of Twitter
On May 29th, James Coleman of Bristol smacked his skull on a tree branch while filing updates to the Twitter service (or tweeting) from his Blackberry during a run. His accident spawned a new word: a “Twinjury”.
Just think about it: Jogging, Blackberrying, tweeting simultaneously – what more 21st century manifestation of the spirit of amateur sportsmanship could there be?
That same day, St. Petersburg Times sports journalist Rick Stroud tweeted on his Twitter page about US Football developments: “Hearing reports that Bucs might be interested in Marvin Harrison,” he wrote to anyone following his feed.
His reader/followers read it and believed what he wrote.
Turned out, though, Stroud had different standards for his Twitter account than for his newspaper.
“People, if I tweet something…it’s … speculation,” he said. “If there’s news, I’ll post it on Tampabay.com.”
What better manifestation of the fact that in the 21st century the concept of “gatekeeping” is history?
A few months earlier, in Davos, I myself tweeted real-time updates from a lunch with George Soros and beat my own correspondent resoundingly in getting news from the lunch out to the world. My new media work beat his efforts which followed our traditional Reuters standards of sending items to an editor before transmission.
What better manifestation of the fact that in the 21st century, rules and standards and procedures drafted in the previous century are being put under severe strain?
Twitter – the service where people send out 140-character updates on everything from important real news to narcissistic details of their personal lives – is no mere fad for several million people around the world, most of them in the key demographic important to IOC rights holders and sponsors.
Facebook – the social networking service – has 200 million active users. That’s a user base the size of the population of Indonesia or of Brazil, and again, nearly all in the key demographic important to the IOC and its friends.
Video of Scottish singer Susan Boyle recently went viral on youtube, garnering 100 million downloads in little over a week – totally out of the control of the show, Britain’s Got Talent, that first gave her a stage or of its production company, which in years past would have held all the reins.
China, around the time of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, turned off access to Twitter and Facebook for its people, but that very act became a story and a subject of angry conversation inside its borders.
In the past weeks, news, pictures and video have come out of Iran using the tools of citizen journalism and social networking – defying attempts of the government to control the story.
I could go on to talk about MySpace or even more importantly the things that we know will be invented and that will become wildly popular by the time the next Olympics rolls around and then the Olympics after that.
But the point, I hope, is clear.
The old means of control don’t work.
The old categories don’t work.
The old ways of thinking won’t work.
We all need to come to terms with that.
Fundamentally, the old media won’t control news dissemination in the future. And organisations can’t control access using old forms of accreditation any more.
Those statements mean what they say and not necessarily more.
I am not arguing that newspapers and magazines and news services will die.
No, just that they must change.
I am not arguing that organisations that define themselves by issuing formal accreditations to professional journalists will disappear from the face of the earth.
No, just that they must change their definition of what they are and what they do.
And speaking of definitions, here’s just one, personal example.
I spend my days at Reuters preaching the multimedia gospel to my 2,700 journalists.
I want people to think holistically. I need them to. More and more, we’re issuing a multimedia report to multimedia-savvy consumers who no longer make a distinction between information they receive from text and information they receive from images. They demand words and pictures to be blended because… well, because that’s the way the world is! That’s the way the internet is. That’s the way schools work. That’s the way businesses work.
So that’s my gospel – to bring multimedia to life at Reuters.
And when I was in Beijing, at the marvellous Olympics there, I was working as well as supervising…and sometimes I did the two simultaneously. So one day when I visited our crew at the swimming cube, I shot a couple of images with a long lens and then blogged on the experience.
Well, you’d have thought I’d mixed the water with the wine, or served beef at a vegetarian banquet! The full weight of the disapproval of the IOC came down upon us. We were pressured to remove my blog post! For, yes, I’d been issued with an “E” writing/editing accreditation and not an “EP” photographic one.
The horror! I’m somewhat surprised you even let me address you today as I’m an unchastened accreditation felon!
(My only plea for mitigation, your honours, is that the AP’s Tom Curley went around Beijing snapping pictures constantly with an “E” accreditation, and you’ve let him address you now twice!)
But seriously – this isn’t a distinction that made sense anymore in 2008 and it makes less sense by the day as media organisations radically reshape newsrooms and roles to deal with both the audience and business realities of the 21st century.
Frankly, your issues are much more serious than the rigid distinction between E and EP.
You need to deal with the almost impossible question of who is a journalist, and what does it mean to report.
Remember my introduction about Twitter and Facebook and youtube and now cast your minds to the next Olympics.
Chances are, a lot of compelling video will be shot on mobile phones and uploaded on sharing sites on the internet within minutes.
Chances are, the first report of a result out of a stadium won’t be Reuters, AP, or Afp. Chances are the first report of a result will be one of 1,572 (to pick a number at random) Twitterers sitting in the stadium banging the result out in a Tweet from their mobile phone.
And since tweets can aggregated and can be searched by keyword – who is the journalist? What is the media organisation? Who has control?
I’m willing to bet that 90% of the athletes participating all have Facebook pages and blogs and Twitter accounts and video-enabled mobiles themselves.
While I know you’ve tried to put some rules and structure around what athletes can and can’t do, frankly I think you’re whistling in the wind.
To say they can blog as long as it isn’t journalistic, misses the point.
To a 23 year-old athlete, used to putting out a “news feed” of every detail of her personal life and training on various social media platforms, there simply isn’t a distinction.
Her life IS a news feed. Her blog IS a publishing platform. Her Facebook page IS the daily newspaper of her life.
And none of these things is really private. They can get indexed by Google; they get searched; they can be public to the world with a potential circulation of every single user of the internet.
Take this scenario: I will easily aggregate my imaginary athlete’s comments and thoughts on winning or losing oron the standard of judging with tweets giving the audience perspective from various parts of the stadium. I’ll then add that in with mobile phone camera pictures and video posted on Flickr and youtube.
Well, my friends, who really needs the rightsholders, AP or Reuters if you can do that?
Some may be frightened of the picture I paint. Some may think I exaggerate.
I actually get energised.
The only question I ask is: So what can we do to survive, or more fundamentally, to stay relevant?
I think the only path is to embrace the change and embrace the new. Longing for the ways of the past will not work.
We in the traditional media and you in the IOC must concentrate our efforts on defining and developing that which really adds value.
That means understanding what really can be exclusive and what really is insightful.
It means truly exploiting real expertise.
It means, to my earlier point, using all the multimedia tools available and all the smart multimedia journalists to provide a package so much stronger than any one individual strand.
It means working with the mobile phone and digital camera and social media-enabled public and not against them.
Working against them would be crazy. Could you imagine gun toting guards trying to confiscate every phone off every spectator? That would become the story of the Games and it would ultimately fail, anyhow.
No, working with them is the answer.
Inspire them, and encourage them to do things that will enhance the Olympic spirit and actually improve the bottom line.
How about a programme to allow link-backs to images from rights holders, creating a partnership?
How about citizen journalism entrees into the rights holders’ reports?
How about competitions with prizes that encourage the best work and best behaviours?
We have spent countless decades enveloping our activities in the cloak of professional mystery.
That era is over.
We must devote the time now to demystifying what we do, and working in concert with those who would seem to be a threat to the old order.
Remember that the world ultimately is a reciprocal place.
Treat people with respect and as partners, and they will partner with you.
Treat people as a threat or as criminals, and they will threaten your institution and ultimately bring it down.
This path doesn’t have to be scary.
It actually is a path we’ve been walking on for some years now.
Even staid old IBM, inventor of the US buttoned-down culture, embraced blogging instead of smothering it. Sure it put some structure around it, and some rules. But now it has some 25,000 internal blogs contributing to innovation.
Each of the new media tools I’ve mentioned, like Twitter or Facebook, is on a hugely innovative and evolutionary path of its own, developing and changing before our eyes.
Let’s embrace the change too, in the way we operate, in the way we organise, in the way we run the Games.
I’d certainly never claim that either the media or the IOC has stood still.
And while I’ve joked about my code “E” run-in with the accrediting authorities, in truth the IOC and the press commission have been hugely helpful to Reuters and to a succession of sports editors and of editors-in-chief over many years; I recognise that and acknowledge it happily and gratefully.
I know that the rules we have evolved for many and varied good, sound and logical reasons.
I know, too, that there are significant and perilous risks involved in any transformation.
The problem, though, is that old media and old institutions change incrementally. The world is changing fundamentally.
We’re changing on an arithmetic scale; the world is changing exponentially.
The four years between summer Olympics can see several generations of change in new media.
And they can see several generations of change in the attitudes and audiences for all media.
In just those four years, the differences between a fresh graduate and a new university student in terms of expectations, demands and experiences with technology, media and information are immense.
We ignore that at our peril.
The athletes who will participate in the next Games will carry in their one telephone handset more computing power than I had in an entire 800 square foot room when I had my first programming job as a teenager.
And so too will the viewers and the consumers upon whom both you and we depend.
Old distinctions and old definitions are falling all around us.
Our goal has to be to preserve the institutions and not the rules or definitions.
And the way to do that is to evolve and morph and develop faster than the changes all around us.
By being swifter in change, by aiming higher than we could have thought feasible, we can make the coverage of the Games stronger for all concerned – from the media to the International Olympic Committee itself to the most important ones of all – the members of the huge global audience.