The new journalism

Abandoned newspaper racks via newspaperdeathwatch.com

Last Saturday, James Harkin published a ‘Facebook is rubbish, let’s go to the pub’ column in the Guardian which, six days latter, looks pretty tattered:

Last week, on the eve of the 13th anniversary of the Dunblane massacre, a reporter from the Sunday Express managed to inveigle her way into a Facebook friendship with teenagers from the town and write a salacious piece about their “antics”, based on information culled from their profiles. The blogosphere went ballistic, but it was too late.

What use, then, are imaginary friends like these? Set up to pass information speedily from one place to another, it is hardly surprising that electronic networks turn out to be a very potent way of ferrying our information around. Very few of us had been in the habit of phoning up numbers from the telephone book at random to impart information, for example, but now we are more than happy to pass it on to our network of weak electronic ties.

But not all of our imaginary friends are out to stitch us up and sell us to the Express. My friend Rachel is imaginary friends with comedian Chris Addison, and he’s friends with Father Ted and IT Crowd scriptwriter Graham Linehan – so when Linehan tweeted the link to his plan of direct action against the Express, his followers (including Addison) re-tweeted it, and their followers (including Rachel) retweeted it, and I read it, retweeted it, blogged it, signed the petition and wrote my letters of complaint. And this quick dispersal of information through a collection of loose affiliates had an effect: 6000 signatures, and whispers that an apology is on its way. Which is not the reform of journalism or anything, but it’s a start.

So if social networking facilitated both an intrusion and a response, then it seems like a pretty neutral creation. Invasive journalism and reader kerfuffles weren’t born with web 2.0 – it’s just that now they can both be bigger, faster and more aggressive than paper and telephones allowed. And bloggers have done some pretty impressive digging recently – Ben Goldacre lists some of their triumphs in his talk “in praise of puerile, chaotic, disseminated investigative journalism.”

The only thing is that all of the examples he comes up with (and the Express outrage could be added to them) seem to cohere around a mainstream media outlet. Yes, the newspapers and radio stations often look slow and stupid, but they’re still a point of contact for lots of people who are otherwise frisking information from hundreds and thousands of disparate sources. And for every blogger who cautiously tries to extract some truth from the sources, there’ll be another one carelessly inciting fear, and little incentive for the reader to go anywhere that challenges their prior assumptions. There are journalists online who easily outpunch some of the big names on the nationals, but if newspapers really are on the fade, I wonder how long it will take for culture to stop organising around their mastheads.