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Jeremy Wagstaff discusses how the Internet has redefined journalism and the emergence of “hyperlocal” news
The Jakarta Post
Sunday, September 30, 2007
By Jeremy Wagstaff
I was asked the other day to address a room full of media types about changes in consumer behavior; where, they wanted to know, are people looking for news in this new digital world?
It’s always a bad idea to get me to talk in public, especially on this subject, since I think it’s the wrong one. Or at least, the wrong way of looking at the subject. I gave them two reasons:
First, there are no consumers of news anymore. In fact, you’ve probably heard this said a lot, here and elsewhere that, in the era of MySpace, Wikipedia, OhmyNews and citizen journalism, everyone is a journalist, and therefore a producer, of news. No one is just a consumer.
Second, there is no news. Or at least there is no longer a traditional, established and establishment definition of what is news. Instead we have information. Some of it moving very fast, so it looks like news. But still information.
A commuter taking a photo of a policeman extracting bribes from drivers and then posting the picture on his blog? It’s not news, but it’s not just information either. It could be news to the policeman, and if he’s busted because of it could be good news to drivers in that town.
We journalists have been schooled in a kind of journalism that goes back to the days when a German called Paul Julius Reuter was delivering it by pigeon. His problem was a simple one: getting new information quickly from A to B. It could be stock prices; it could be the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
That definition of news has remained with us until today.
A lot of the time it remains a good one. When terrorists hit, we’d rather know sooner than later. If stocks in our portfolio are losing their value in a crash, we’d prefer to get that information now.
When Buddhist monks hit the streets of towns in Myanmar we look to AFP, Reuters and AP to get the news out.
But the Internet has changed a lot of this. First off, everyone is connected. By connected I mean they can look up anything they like so long as they’re near an Internet-connected computer. Which for a lot of people now means a 3G phone.
Even if you don’t have one, the chances are you’ll be in spitting range of a computer that is connected to the Internet. Or you could get you information by SMS — from news sites, from colleagues, from family members. It’s not that we’re not far from a gadget. We’re not far from information.
This has a critical impact on the idea of news.
Because we’re informed, news doesn’t hit us in the same way it used to when we didn’t.
True, if someone hits a tall building with an airliner, that’s news to all of us. The U.S. invades or leaves Iraq; that’s news.
But the rest of the time, news is a slippery beast that means different things to different people.
That’s because there’s another kind of news we’re all interested in. It’s hyperlocal news. It’s what is around us. In our neighborhood. Since moving house I’m much less interested in gubernatorial elections and much more in anything that anybody says about en bloc sales and house prices.
That is hyperlocal news, and it’s where most people spend their day. No nuclear weapons being fired? No terrorist attacks? No meltdown in the financial markets? OK, so tell me more about en bloc sales. Actually, this is just part of hyperlocal news.
If you’ve used Facebook, you’ll know there’s another kind of addictive local news: your friends’ status updates. A status update, for those of you who haven’t tried Facebook, is basically a short message that accompanies your profile indicating what you’re up to at that point.
I think of it a wire feed by real people. Of course it’s not news as we’d think of it, but news as in an answer to the questions “What’s up?” “What’s new?”"What’s happening?” “What’s new with you?”
In that sense it’s news. I call it hyper-hyperlocal news. Even though those people are spread all over the world, they’re all part of my friends network, and that means for me they’re local.
So news isn’t always what we think of as news. News has always meant something slightly different to the nonmedia person; our obsession with prioritizing stories in a summary, the most important item first (How many dead? What color was their skin? Any Americans involved?) has been exposed as something only we tend to obsess over.
Don’t believe me? Look at the BBC website. While the editors were putting up stories about Musharraf, North Korea and Japan, the users were swapping stories about Britney Spears splitting with her manager, the dangers of spotty face, and the admittedly important news that the Sex Pistols might be getting back together.
Of course, I’m not saying journalists are from Mars and readers are from Venus. It just looks that way.
What we’re really seeing is that now that people have access to information, they are showing us what they’re interested in. Unsurprisingly, they’re interested in different stuff. What we call audience fragmentation — niche audiences for specialized interests — is actually what things have always been about.
If we’re a geek we go for our news to Slashdot. We want gossip? We go to Gawker. We want to change the world? We go to WorldChangingOnline.org The Internet makes the Long Tail of all those niche audiences and interests possible, and possibly profitable.
What we’re seeing with the Internet is not a revolution against the values of old media; a revolution against the notion that it’s only us who can dictate what is news.
What we’re seeing is that people get their news from whoever can help them answer the question they’re asking. We want the headlines, we go to CNN. But the rest of the time, “news” is for us just part of a much bigger search for information, to stay informed.