Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Dec. 21, 2011, 9 a.m.

Emily Bell: 2012 will be a year of expanded “network sensibility”

As the fourth estate goes digital, Columbia’s Tow Center director argues, it will question its reliance on third-party platforms.
Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is Emily Bell, formerly the director of digital content for Guardian News and Media and currently the director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.

Making predictions about journalism is a hopeless business: Jay Rosen, who is much wiser than I am, said he never does it, and I salute him for that. But like Karaoke, some of the things you end up doing during the holiday period are regrettable but fun.

What we saw in 2011 was a sudden consciousness among news organizations and individual journalists that the network, and the tools that create it, are not social media wrappers for reporting but part of the reporting process itself. The poster child for this is the inimitable Andy Carvin, with his amazingly valuable journalism conducted throughout the Arab Spring. The network sensibility will grow in newsrooms that currently don’t tend to have it as part of their process — it is still seen in the vast majority of places as more of a “nice to have” rather than a “must have.” The strongest news organizations we know are those which can leverage both the real time social web and provide relevant, timely context and analysis.

While this use of distributed tools and new platforms continues at speed, I think we will also see some much-needed closer scrutiny on what this new reality means for journalism and its constant redefinition of products and services. Or at least I hope so. While a fan of a networked approach, there are important caveats. It is remarkable how much journalism is now conducted on third-party commercial websites which do not have journalism as a core purpose — Facebook, Twitter, Google, etc. — and the attendant ignorance of what this means in the long term will begin to be addressed. Issues about privacy and user information, about the protection of sources, about ownership of IP, about archiving, and about how we can have a “fourth estate” in a digital world will all become vital for individual journalists and institutions to understand.

Journalists have always been very skilled at stories and projects and fairly awful at thinking about platforms. We need more engineers who want to be journalists, and we need to teach students more about the implications of publishing in a digital environment — whatever the format their journalism originally takes.

POSTED     Dec. 21, 2011, 9 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Predictions for Journalism 2012
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