When Worlds Collide

Something that might get lost in the larger story of Hurricane Gustav and (to a lesser extent) Tropical Storm Hanna is how the “old” media started looking towards — and, dare I say, embracing — “new” social media tools.

On a national level, CNN’s Twitter presence started to beef up with actual humans. There’s been stuff like @cnnbrk and @cnnireport but not until Rick Sanchez has there been much exposure on the network. Sanchez uses Twitter (along with Facebook and MySpace) for viewer reaction to stories aired during his CNN NewsRoom segments. In the past week, I’ve come across anchor Don Lemon and producer Tori Blase, who have been engaging viewers even more over the medium (Sanchez does not @reply users). I like this. I like this a LOT. I like it so much, that as Gustav was approaching New Orleans two Saturdays ago, I was tuned into CNN and not The Weather Channel. We know how much I like The Weather Channel, but CNN’s engagement of its viewers was impressive to me.

On a local level, uptake of Twitter is still an ongoing project, but the News 2 Twitter, updated by a producer on a regular basis, was nothing short of astounding for quickly relaying reports of closures during Hanna, for example. He was also listening, taking news tips and interacting with users. This was extremely impressive, and any coverage of Hanna I got from local news typically came from Channel 2, largely because I knew someone within the organization “gets it.”

Hurricane Coverage Brought To You Exclusively By Social Media

Despite Channel 2’s interaction, I didn’t need to watch much of it, because I had everything I needed over social media. Between following @hurricanes for NHC advisories, News 2 for closure information, and getting perspectives on the storm from broadcast meteorologists like Brian Neudorff from Rochester and Fred Campagna from Providence, RI, I had enough information to be able to make informed decisions and aid in my own analysis of the storm, which I passed along on the Charleston Weather Ustream broadcast and @chswx Twitterstream. What’s interesting is that while more local meteorologists have picked up blogging, interactivity over Twitter is still missing and would be a very useful ingredient in furthering the dialogue with viewers.

Twitter Is the Wire

Gustav, Hanna, and other events such as the recent earthquakes on the West Coast and the Bhutto assassination, for instance, demonstrate that Twitter is becoming a new wire service. The big difference between Twitter the wire and, say, the AP wire, is that Twitter is a wire service that’s open to consumption by and contribution from everybody. Certainly an open system like this is vulnerable to an injection of bad information; however, the beauty of the wire is that it can be self-healing. There are folks on Twitter who are relentless fact-checkers who can find and snuff out bad information relatively quickly.

Media, Ignore Emerging Technologies At Your Peril

Media outlets who ignore Twitter as a wire service, a broadcast service, and as a channel for interaction with their customers do so at their own peril. There is a lot to be gained by a “traditional” media presence on the new channels because traditional media have a big trump card over a majority of bloggers: access. With some exceptions, ordinary citizens still don’t have access to government or other public figures that traditional media can get. Traditional media has spent a long time building relationships with folks in power, and to be able to fuse that access with the new media tools at everybody’s disposal is a win-win situation.

I’ve seen some media outlets use Twitter to broadcast their news stories. That’s all well and good, but that’s only half of it. Twitter’s about interactivity, it’s about conversation and transparency; one-sidedness does not a conversation make. This is why the fact that News2 has a real human behind one of its Twitter accounts (it also has a primarily broadcast-only Twitter account, @wcbd) is so impressive to me. It’s actual conversation with folks inside the newsroom, which helps me build more of a trust knowing they’re truly listening. That is really cool to me.

We Need The Newsroom

The newsroom isn’t dead yet, and for the sake of society, it cannot die. Like it or not, mainstream media still sets the tone — for the most part — in America’s dialogue. The newsroom still plays the important role of gatekeeper, too; not everyone has the ability to be discerning enough about news in all topics. The newsroom gives the populace orientation on topics they may not be immediately familiar with.

The newsroom has to — and will — adapt to be platform-agnostic. Newsrooms can no longer be known as “the newspaper” or “the TV station” and have a prayer at surviving long-term. The pace of technology demands portability and agility, and some newsrooms are doing this better than others. (The New York Times comes to mind.) I firmly believe that a newsroom that can free itself from the boundaries of its medium and just go out and do what it does best — gather and report what’s happening — will reap the greatest reward and be the most sustainable solution long-term. (Monetizing such a thing is a topic for another day, and perhaps for another person; I’m not a businessman, I’m just here to create stuff.)

Here’s hoping more traditional media outlets take on this challenge and further embrace social media tools. If you’ve seen more examples of this, please leave them in comments; I’m really interested to see more examples at all levels.

Update: Dan Conover at Xark has a post along these lines that would never pass a doping test called Coordinates 2.0, which is a post he and Jay Rosen from NYU have been working to update. Dan’s encouraging comments, so please have your say.

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