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Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

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.

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  • John Linton

    Interesting article Emily, and as you said right at the top making predictions about these things with any accuracy is hopeless, at least without either a crystal ball or a time travelling DeLorean. ‘Engineers who want to be journalists’, sounds a bit scary to be honest! Maybe it’ll work out that way – after all an army radio operator is hired for his electronics skills more than the clarity of his voice. And in the early days of tv, film and photography, the early adopters were mainly technically minded, although it does take a more unusual combination of the scientific and the artistic to use new technology creatively. This is probably why these things evolve and duties end up spread out among the most fit for each individual task. I’m in no doubt that in these early evolving days of a fully functioning internet, that the skills to negotiate and directly interact with the network will be as important if not more than the journalism skills. However once the innovating has settled down and the competition for viewers or clicks or whatever they’ll be judged on begins in earnest, then the battle for the best content will begin. Maybe at this point the 100% journalists, writers and photographers will be called back into action, and content will once again be king. 

  • Chris Holt

    Hi Emily, now that 2012 is almost over I’m curious to know how you think your predictions played out.