Commentary

Reporting By Cabal: The Seattle Times' Experiment with Pro-Am Journalism

It's been (yet another) week of seeing old worlds collapse while new ones emerge, with most of the change driven by social media. Early yesterday afternoon, my husband calls to tell me about layoffs at his former employer, USA Today, while in the background I'm listening to this week's Federal Trade Commission workshop on the future of journalism, one that entails no small amount of citizen journalism -- at least from those who accept such a notion -- and the possibility of government-funded journalism to cover the huge financial gaps that now exist in the business.

And yet, while social media is among the factors contributing to the demise of traditional forms of news-gathering, fortunately it brings with it an extremely strong undertow of innovation. This trend was best exemplified this week not by anyone on the dais down in Washington, but by the Seattle Times' decision to experiment with Google's Wave to cover a tragic event as it unfolded: the murder of four police officers in Lakeland, Wash., and the search for the shooter -- a topic exponentially more important than what I wrote about in last week's column, which was the tweeting of Black Friday deals. That's social media for you.

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As the paper said in a story about its use of Google Wave to cover the hunt for the suspect: "For us it became a live document that allowed folks on the Web interested in the story to take part in helping to move it forward. It was social media, reporting and online journalism at the next level. Or at least a crack at it."

There's a PDF of the information traded and collected as the Seattle Times worked on the story here. It's a snapshot of what was real-time group reporting (with all the disjointedness that entails). There is, for instance, a posting of an email sent to University of Washington personnel because the suspect was sighted near the local campus, links to the live police scanner feed, and even discussion about social media itself, including how the public nature of so much information will help future suspects evade police detection. Said one participant. "I am concerned by the real time reporting of scanner activity here and on twitter [sic]. This suspect may not be savvy but future ones may be."

While the general consensus among those using it is that Wave still very much deserves its beta status, the PDF provides a window into how big news events will be reported going forward. We can leave it to the business types, for the purposes of this column, as to how such a thing will make money; the Wave does make obvious, though, that editors will be increasingly helpful as arbiters of sorts, helping participants and readers make sense of the stream.

Still, this is a great example of how citizen journalists, professional journalists and the rest of us will, on many occasions, report the news together. While there is peril in that model because of the inevitable inaccuracies of reporting in real-time by cabal, it also has the potential to be much more useful, particularly in a crisis situation, to the body public, with many advantages over the usual police car-chase footage we've grown accustomed to seeing on the cable news channels.

Take a moment this week and look at this social media experiment. All of the trends it embodies have been out there for awhile, but as a next-generation iteration of them, this is as a good example as exists.

(By the way, we've just posted the agenda for the next OMMA Social, which will be held in San Francisco on Jan. 26. Take a look.)

2 comments about "Reporting By Cabal: The Seattle Times' Experiment with Pro-Am Journalism".
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  1. Leonard Sipes from Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, December 3, 2009 at 11:28 a.m.

    Colleagues: The article addresses the use of Google Wave and other aspects of social media by the Seattle Times to apprehend the shooter of four Seattle police officers. Google Wave is essentially a community-wide message board in real time.

    What this says is that media is searching for new tools in a diminished capacity (See today’s Post regarding the shrinking Washington Times) to tell a story.

    What this means for bureaucracies like ours is the prospect of thousands of people commenting on a breaking story thus influencing the direction story coverage takes.

    What this means is that bureaucracies like ours need to develop almost instant social media responses that “may” be just as important as our responses to mainline media.

    We have just entered a brand new world.

    Len.

  2. Swag Valance from Trash, Inc., December 3, 2009 at 7:51 p.m.

    I'm not clear where citizen journalism ends and vigilantism begins.

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