#swineflu and the changing news ecology

On Saturday, I spent the day discussing the evolution of the news at BarCamp NewsInnovation Philly. It was something I had planned on attending for over a month and, as such, I had a pretty good idea on Thursday and Friday of what I wanted to discuss. With the story of swine flu infections breaking all around us, though, I was certain we had something new that we had to talk about: the role of the news organization in an ecosystem with multiplying non-traditional means for information dissemination.

It’s the biggest story of the weekend, no doubt, but there’s a meta-discussion to be had too. I first caught wind of the story late Friday night while waiting for Sean Blanda to pick me up from PHL. Processing through Google Reader, I briefly skimmed Xark!’s “Flu: Don’t panic, but pay attention.” The honest truth, however, is that I didn’t pay attention and it didn’t stick. The next morning as we drove to Temple University for #bcniphilly I was skimming through Google Reader on my iPhone again. This time I came across a post from Vinay Gupta on how you should take action if it becomes a pandemic flu (i.e. what steps you should take to be proactive). His perspective is what perked my interest to learn more.

Although at the top of Vinay’s post was a link to the Wikipedia article in progress, my first intuition was to “confirm” the facts and download the NY Times iPhone application. After three or four minutes, I was able to launch and see their coverage. The only story on the front page of the mobile app, however, was a short article about the outbreak at a school in Queens, New York. Not getting the context I wanted, I went to the Google Mobile app to see what search results it would give me. The top link was the Wikipedia article in progress which gave me the background to the previous three articles and posts.

Notice: only one of the four sources of information I accessed to learn more about a news event (i.e. “pull journalism”) was an established news media brand. I’ll refrain from putting that phrase in metaphorical quotes. This fact, based on a self-observation of news consumption, led me to believe that one of the most important conversations we could have at BCNI Philly would be on the role of the traditional news organization in an ecosystem of news.

Based on a thought-provoking conversation with Ryan Sholin, Eric Ulken, and a few others, I’d like to offer perspective. First, the formats for news need to evolve further. I mean, I went to Wikipedia because I wasn’t satisfied with how the New York Times presented information to me. If they launched a true news wiki with similar or superior accessibility, I think they could steal my attention back for one reason: the New York Time has a brand of accuracy and accountability that is backed by real people. Wikipedia has a brand of accuracy and accountability in my mindspace, but it’s not visibly backed by public faces. Extra points to the Times if they can build a wiki where authoritative figures can suggest edits, and then there’s some way to visualize which contributions came from reporters and which from scientists.

Two, be a curator. I started following @CDCemergency because Tim O’Reilly tweeted about it, not because the New York Times did. In fact, I don’t even follow the Times on Twitter because their profile isn’t any better than an RSS feed. I decide who I follow on Twitter based on whether they create value by curating the web. If I were working at the Times now, I’d create an account like @nytswineflu, which includes both brand and topic, and use it to publish new updates, tease both New York Times articles and others, and answer followers’ questions. Curation is journalism too.

On this topic of #swineflu, there’s another conversation being had about Twitter’s power to misinform:

That aside, the “swine flu” Twitter-scare has once again proved the importance of context – and how badly most Twitter conversations are hurt by the lack of it. The problem with Twitter is that there is very little context you can fit into 140 characters, even less so if all you are doing is watching a stream of messages that mention “swine flu.” Now, the lack of context is probably not a problem in 99% of discussions happening on Twitter – or, at least, it’s not a problem with devastating global consequences.

To me, though, this underscores the need for media literacy and critical thinking skills. Lack of context can be countered by one simple thing: the link. The value of the news organization in this new news ecology is to be a part of the conversation, and provide an easily accessible repository for vetted information, let it be a tweet, an article, or a continuously revised wiki. Reclaim that brand.

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