There is nothing new about news outlets and their journalists competing for the limited eyes and ears of viewers, but a paradigm shift in information sharing has occurred in the past 10 years as outlets and journalists have slowly, and perhaps unwittingly, begun giving direct access to their own sources, thereby slowly deleting themselves as media.
The overall idea of journalism is to facilitate and continually increase the share of factual, pertinent information.
A journalist is interested in giving to readers as much information from as many credible sources as possible; to allow those readers to make informed decisions with the information from those sources.
But a loss of voice and function for media is slowly growing and it is troubling for the industry and the individual journalist.
The practice of sharing the content of others makes your voice the voice of others; people hear their voices and not your voice.
For a growing number of outlets and journalists, including myself, curating journalism sources has become its own form of journalism. But with that, an increase in sharing direct sources has greatly increased and opened a dangerous window between giving people information and giving away to people the sources that make journalism a career practice.
In journalism, media are medium(s) between the reader and the source. They are the voice of information.
But every person with access to a computer or smart phone and an Internet access now has a voice that can penetrate an audience large or small given the right circumstances. It’s not just, as some love to say with negative connotation, “The Establishment,” anymore — and that’s not going away.
The shift seen is these established media accounts and journalists following along with the curators in directly sharing information from information sources — a police department, a government official, a politician, a fast food conglomerate, a link to a person’s Facebook photo, etc. — instead of vetting and reproducing the information and content for the reader, on their own platforms, where they make their living.
In theory, these sources gaining the opportunity to share their own message is good practice, because, again, the goal is to give people access to information and let them decide their view, but what occurs in practice is people gravitate to the sources they want and stop using your service of curation and reporting — your platforms — when they get what they want on their own.
They don’t need you anymore. They now have direct access to what they want. You have no purpose.
The ramifications for the journalism industry should be obvious.
If you look long-term, such practice could prove catastrophic, because if curators overshare direct sources and the standard-bearing outlets like the New York Times or CNN or Reuters or AP fold because their purpose as the bedrock source-gatherers collapses, journalism would simply be unfettered but unvetted information anarchy.
The loss of market control is a common theme seen in the progression of technology in any consumer industry:
"I took the train, but now I have a car. I don’t need the train." Train travel was revolutionary in its time and truly led to the expansion and populating of the country you see today, but the arrival of personal car travel subjugated the industry.
"I used to send hand-written or typed letter via snail mail, but now I just email." The US Postal Service is bleeding loses because they didn’t adjust to the loss of their consumers.
As someone who traffics daily in curating sources — be them other journalists and outlets, or citizen-journalists sharing reports and content on social media, or sources of information in my own reporting in a regional news market — I understand the danger of giving away my sources.
Over time, you begin to see that instead of you being part of reports with the trustworthy sources you have curated over time, the sources become the sources of your competitors — even colleagues — and you are basically ignored when they begin to share information, circumventing you.
In the breaking news community, especially on Twitter, this is common practice and just part of the dynamic in the community, but it teaches a valuable lesson that you have to be careful to not make the purpose of your work obsolete by giving away the sources you’ve worked hard and spent time researching to come to a point where you can trust them and share their information as a fellow information source.
During the Westgate Mall attack in Kenya, I felt it necessary to cite government reports accounts without giving direct link to the Twitter accounts.
For someone whose presence in journalism is gathering sources of information on social media and sharing them on the same platforms, giving away those accounts would make my work pointless, if my viewers had the same direct knowledge of access to those sources as I did.
Why would they need me if they could just get it from the horse’s mouth?
For some, it might be viewed as stingy or closed-off to withhold direct access to sources, but the point is not to make oneself point-less as a journalist.
Those who work in the industry understand what happens when you cite and name a source of information in a report:
1. Competitor’s report: “According to sheriff’s spokesperson John Doe…”
2. Find John Doe’s number
3. Call John Doe immediately
4. John Doe is now your source and you don’t need to cite the competitor’s report
1. Competitor’s report: “According to a law enforcement official…”
2. Call lots of law enforcement sources in the area
3. Take an hour before you finally find the original source and deliver your own report
To some extent, that’s annoying to those who are interested in Big J, as it’s not really holding the officials accountable by putting the pressure on them to make sure their information is accurate. Sources are much more likely to double-check their information is accurate if their name is in the report, as there will be backlash if they are wrong — either in the public view or in their inner circle or both.
But it serves a very practical and survivalist purpose.
If I give up my sources, I lose or greatly cut down my purpose as an information medium when local competitors divide the local viewership into eight segments, instead of just your one. Or national outlets get my source and overwhelm my report audience with their massive presence.
It happens all the time.
The direct sharing of official information or of competitors’ reports should be of great concern to journalism as an industry.
This division of source information to multiple outlets is increasingly cutting down on the ability for individual outlets to maintain a big enough audience to generate the continued interest of the advertisers or funding partners who are ultimately the base drivers of journalism.
A similar paradigm is what led to the ongoing decline of newspapers:
Instead of adjusting quickly to the digital platform renaissance, there was much backlash from newspapers as they stuck to their print editions and saw digital platforms as threats to the print industry that needed to be overrun, not assimilated. Conversely, TV stations, bloggers and the like moved in and took a still-growing chunk of the print audience, because they jumped onboard with the inevitable and simply made themselves multi-platform outlets, thereby keeping and growing the audience that was adjusting to the digital age’s new platforms.
Some newspapers get it now and are making their product cross-platform and are surviving and even growing. But still others are sinking with the newspaper platform ship, without understanding that though loved and tradition, a newspaper is just a platform to share the product.
In simple economic terms, the supply is outweighing the demand as the markets become saturated with producers of the information product. There are only so many eyes that are interested in the daily consumption of the news product.
What took a large news outlet sending a journalist on an intercontinental trip and working with established relationships to get to a source, one person sitting on their home computer can now reach that same source within seconds with a tweet or a phone call or a text message.
As a regional news example, on Saturday, I saw a tweet from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office about a police officer involved in a shooting.
At some point, I had come across that account because it was directly retweeted into my timeline by either a news outlet or a journalist from that market. I followed it as a new source of information.
I then saw a vague tweet from WJXT in Jacksonville mentioning a little bit more information, but they had piqued my interest — without giving me a link to more information.
With interest piqued, I went back to the JSO Twitter account and found a full recorded news conference with a JSO official that JSO had shared with the world on YouTube.
From there, I was able to write my own report and had no need to cite WJXT, because I had all the information directly from JSO.
I didn’t need WJXT to give me any more information. I had it, from an official, for myself and my outlet. Jacksonville is 200 miles away, but I had all the content I really needed to make a good, viral story.
WJXT is singled-out because I needed an example, but the overteasing of information when the information is already readily available to the reader elsewhere is a chronic practice across digital journalism. Ergo, I’m not going to wait for 30 minutes for you to post it when it’s very likely I can find it posted somewhere else already.
For media outlets like WJXT, fighting for views in a particular market, this is a problem that may not really be very visual in their analytics right now, but if outlets don’t begin to understand that they are being supplanted as a medium by the information sources they are meant to be between, their purpose will slow-drain away and they begin to merely limp along like snail mail or passenger train – or even become entirely obsolete.
If I am only interested in getting information about the murder that occurred on my street last night, and the police department put their full (unedited, unchecked, sometimes biased) press release on Facebook, why do I need to go looking for it on a jumbled news website or sit through a video with ads or 15 minutes of TV news, when I could just see the whole thing, knowing it will be the most recent post on the department’s Facebook?
Another interesting dynamic that is seen is media outlets directly sharing reports from other news outlets that aren’t even affiliated with themselves or their parent companies.
For example, @Newsbreaker and @BuzzFeedNews on Twitter and Facebook have seen their following grow through this practice, as well as their own work in penetrating the market with original and pseudo-original content, and that is great for them, but troubling for those outlets that are struggling to gain viewers to their own account, with their own voice.
Those outlets are sharing information, but giving away the opportunity of reach to those non-affiliated outlets. The viewer sees @Newsbreaker, not this local outlet or that local outlet that is sharing that content, without repurposing it and sharing it in their own name.
To an extent, there is a return on the investment: you share me and I’ll share you. But for many, news is a matter of particular interests and if an outlet like @BuzzFeedNews can curate only the best stories, I may find myself unfollowing and stop paying attention to my local outlet because they often share stuff I really don’t care about.
Example: “If it’s a story that’s interesting, @BuzzFeedNews will share it. So, I’m not going to clutter up my feed with the other mundane stuff from my local outlet.”
With all the above in mind, I still think it’s important not to let it discourage the sharing of social media sources and giving credit where credit is due by promoting the outlets as good information sources — journalists who are doing great in remote places, journalists who are putting their lives on the line to cover a shooting, outlets like the Texas Tribune who function literally as a public service, citizens near an explosion or natural disaster who are sharing minute-by-minute information from the ground — but simply to be cognizant of maintaining and growing as medium and making sure the work doesn’t become obsolete.
Law enforcement and government officials and companies and bloggers shouldn’t be offended or discouraged by what’s said above. There is a great work being done and I believe in open-source information, even if most of what is said above goes against opening the world directly to sources.
My point is for journalists and news outlets to understand early that they can’t lose their purpose and for them to be more aware of how they share the information.
To some journalists, their ideal is a society when and where professional journalists won’t be needed, where people perform citizen journalism and don’t have to rely on outlets to be media in the practice of information-sharing.
But that will likely always simply be an ideal, as people lie and stretch the truth and hide information, and strong journalists backed by strong media apparatuses will be needed to cut through to at least as close to the truth as possible.