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Feb. 5, 2010, noon

Riding the Wave: New tech, new reporting methods

As journalism evolves, re-invents, whichever action verb you’d like, I think we need to pay more attention to how news gathering is changing — or should be changing. Yes, crowdsourcing — when a news organization uses a large group of regular folks to report a story — gets a lot of ink, but I’m not talking about that.

I’m talking about journalists taking full advantage of online tools to gather information. A series of posts Vadim Lavrusik wrote for Mashable illustrates my point. He gathered a bunch of media/journo types, including me, on a private Google Wave and then suggested topics for us to discuss amongst ourselves. We were warned in advance that he’d be quoting us for possible blog posts. (Our Google Wave chat yielded these four posts: journalist of the future, business trends, content trends, media collaboration).

Here is why that strategy worked:

Relationships: He specifically invited people he knew had knowledge of the topic he was writing about, and he could verify who we are. So it was a lot more structured than just tweeting, “Hey, what do you think the future of journalism will be like?” I’d suggest there are times when that informal approach can be useful, especially for lighter topics. But I think the targeted approach makes more sense most of the time.

The reporter uses social media to foster connections or relationships with people and then builds on those connections to create an interesting story. Social media isn’t the end in itself — just a means of reaching people whom a reporter wants to reach.

Interaction: Being part of this wave was very different than being interviewed one on one by a reporter. One participant’s Google Wave response to one of Lavrusik’s questions stimulated new lines of conversation. Others inspired or helped shape other participants’ responses.

Using a wave abandoned the traditional linear approach of Source > Reporter. Instead, a group suggested ideas, and all the group members could kick those concepts around in real time. The result, I’d argue, could be more valuable than if any of us on the wave had been interviewed separately.

Certainly, this type of reporting won’t work for every story. If you land the interview with the accused serial killer, you want him or her alone — without a wave. But for many stories, the ability for give and take among the interview subjects makes for a richer experience. The reporter’s online relationships lead to sources, which lead to interaction, which generates news and information.

Please don’t read this as an endorsement of Google Wave, which may not stand the test of time. This isn’t about one tool. It’s about a new way of thinking about the gathering of information that takes greater advantage of the interactivity of the Web. It’s about journalists at traditional news organizations being at the front of challenging, changing, innovating how they collect information for a story instead of lagging behind the blogosphere.

Surely, the idea of interviewing people together isn’t new. For decades, reporters have asked multiple people to sit down in a room and talk about an issue. But social media tools can make it easier to do this type of “focus group” reporting. These tools offers one huge benefit for the reporter — no need to go through the lengthy process of transcribing a taped meeting or group interview.

Yes, some will say that gathering information this way isn’t the same as face to face because the reporter can’t read the sources’ body language, expressions, winces. True. That’s why it’s a tool that’s only for certain types of stories, like the ones Lavrusik did where body language, honestly, mattered little.

Way back in June, BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis suggested Google Wave could be a way to crowd source, with reporters and witnesses providing information in real time. The Austin American-Statesman has used Google Wave as part of its election coverage. The Los Angeles Times in September suggested Google Wave could “transform” journalism.

My take: No one thing, tool, application, experience will transform journalism. But collectively, technology will offer new ways of both disseminating — and gathering news — if news organizations let them.

So, if you’re a news organization and your reporters are only gathering information in the way they did a year ago (or even six months ago), you might want consider changing that.

POSTED     Feb. 5, 2010, noon
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