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

Building on the Snowden effect

“If journalism is to matter, we can’t just raise big topics. We have to spread them, and then sustain them.”

On Friday morning, Dec. 20, three major news organizations published the latest revelations in the surveillance scandal that held the world’s attention throughout 2013. In articles posted by The Guardian, The New York Times, and Der Spiegel, we learned that the NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ had been spying on a variety people and organizations that had no plausible connection to terrorism — confirmation that our surveillance targets had included, among others, business and economic interests.

dan-gillmorThe stories were all based on the same documents, leaked earlier in the year to journalists by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. And they were yet another shoe dropping in a saga that shows no signs of dwindling public attention. If the governments running this massive surveillance dragnet were hoping the issue would fade away, they are surely now understanding that it won’t happen anytime soon.

The Snowden revelations are a classic example of journalistic critical mass. The journalists covering them have used the documents to identify and amplify an issue of such importance and scope that it doesn’t flame up and out in the manner of most stories. Rather, this one has gained weight in the public sphere as time goes on, in what Jay Rosen aptly calls the “Snowden Effect.”

In 2014 and beyond, journalists should be inspired by the Snowden effect. They should focus more on critical mass — how to achieve it and how to sustain it. If journalism is to matter, we can’t just raise big topics. We have to spread them, and then sustain them.

It used to be that the daily newspaper — whether a national daily like the Times or a community paper — could do this simply by putting a story on Page 1. TV news broadcasts and programs like 60 Minutes (back when when they did actual journalism) could also put things on the public agenda.

But in a world of increasingly fragmented media creation, critical mass is more difficult. Social networks — viral marketing — can help. It isn’t enough, however, except in the rarest of circumstances, and it can go badly wrong (see Kony), though it can help.

Achieving genuine critical mass obliges journalists to rethink old traditions, especially competitive ones. “Exclusives” can be counterproductive if they lead other journalists to ignore or downplay the news, whether out of jealousy or inability to get the confirming source material for their own coverage.

The NSA revelations were different because the journalists who received the documents, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, gave some of them to a variety of news organizations. And at least one of those news organizations, The Guardian (disclosure: I write a weekly column for its U.S. website), further shared what it had, in part to prevent U.K. authorities from shutting down the coverage. Moreover, the journalists and organizations have paced themselves in revealing new information every week or two, in a drumbeat that reveals one stunning piece of news after another.

This nearly unprecedented level of cooperation has turned a multimedia, multi-organization journalistic epic. It’s almost like a great weekly TV show, where we look forward to the latest installment, expecting a new twist in each episode.

Journalists will increasingly recognize the value of collaboration and cooperation — and of shedding their old “not invented here” attitudes. They’ll understand that bringing vital information to the public is, in part, a campaign and not just an act of publishing.

We’ll be campaigning to get people’s attention. We’ll be keeping the heat on the bad guys, and celebrating the things that work, enthusiastically if not relentlessly.

This won’t be only for national and global issues. At the local level, critical mass will be even harder to achieve, perhaps, given the way local newspapers have withered and the way local TV “news” is mostly a cynical, crime-driven exercise. Local information providers of all kinds, including bloggers, Facebook page managers and others who care about their communities, will share what they know, and will leverage traditional methods of organizing to get the public to focus on things that matter.

Of all the things we’re losing in the crumbling of traditional media institutions, critical mass would be the most difficult to replace if we don’t re-imagine what’s possible and re-think our approach. The Snowden effect — and the journalists who’ve made it possible — show what can happen when we do.

Dan Gillmor teaches digital media literacy at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

                         
Updating regularly through Friday, December 20