Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Social Media is Winning the Breaking News War

On July 15, an intense rainstorm dropping nearly two inches of rain battered Rexburg, Idaho.

And bar none, the best on-the-spot reporting done on the flooding in town and on the campus of BYU-Idaho was done by individuals with social media accounts and cell phone cameras.

Witness this video:

(This video is of particular interest to me, as it shows the neighborhood where we used to own a home. I’m certain if it were still there – the house was demolished for student housing – the basement would be waterlogged.)

Here’s another video from the same individual who posted the first, this time showing flooding in a BYU-Idaho building:

More raw video – with a request from ABC News to use the YouTube footage.

Now is this the who-what-when-where-why reporting that represents the best of journalism? No, it’s not. There are no damage estimates backed up by any authority, there is no accounting for the weather that caused the flooding.

But they’re on the spot. They’re eyes and ears and cameras on the ground. And with Facebook and YouTube to distribute the content, they’ve got their audience. No one needs traditional news organizations any more.

Oh, they do if they want the gritty details.

But guess what’s getting disseminated?

Here’s the Idaho Statesman’s coverage. Note nothing from any news outlet – just the raw video provided by that well-recognized news organization, the BYU-Idaho Department of Music.

Here’s coverage from the Deseret News. They went with the bitty story from the local newspaper (more on that later) but relied very heavily on social media coverage of the breaking story for the best on-the-spot reporting.

Here’s TV coverage from Boise. This is all social media coverage, not local news coverage.

Here's one of our local TV station's coverage. And here. And here. And here. And here.

Here’s the local newspaper’s web coverage.

It’s sad. Two static images (fairly small ones at that) and nothing beyond a little who-what-where in the brief text treatment of what’s probably the biggest news event so far in Rexburg in 2014.

I can understand the restraint, however. In breaking news situations, situations fluctuate. Eyewitnesses give inaccurate information. One of our local TV stations had good coverage, balancing news gathering with social media video. Some of their news, however, was out of date as the events unfolded last night (power never was shut off, contrary to what the report says).

Still, the local paper could have done better. A lot better.

I’m not taking a look at print presentations of the news. I’m looking at the breaking news presentation. This kind of event is what screams for instant coverage, without the high-handed hand-wringing of “we can’t verify a rumor.” We’re not asking for rumors. We want to see these videos and hear from the folks reacting to the news as it happens, not a day later. By that time, we’ve seen all the videos. You can fill in the whys and there wherefores and address the rumors and officialdom then, and that works just fine. But it’s clear social media is winning the breaking news competition, hands down.

Even the big guys are stumbling.

To take a quote from Alan D. Mutter’s “Reflections of  A Newsosaur” blog, “Newspapers can’t merely dabble at digital.”

Nutter’s post discusses an internal New York Times report (leaked by BuzzFeed) detailing how the paper is failing at digital distribution of its news products. Nutter says: 

In one painful example, a Huffington Post editor told the Times team that their newspaper was “crushed” by the amount of traffic captured by his site when it repurposed NYT coverage of the death of Nelson Mandela. “I was queasy watching the numbers,” said the unidentified editor quoted in the report. “I’m not proud of this. But this is your competition. You should defend the digital pickpockets from stealing your stuff with better headlines, better social.”

In another example of digital tone-deafness cited in the report, the author of the sprawling Dasani series on a homeless family trapped in horrific public housing did not get around to tweeting about her own story until two days after the first installment ran. Curiously, noted the report, the newsroom controls the Twitter account but the “business side” runs the Facebook page.

On this Rexburg flood story, most news media was outfoxed by students or university employees with digital cameras and access to YouTube or Facebook. And here’s the thing: I’m sure none of them set out thinking “I’m going to beat the local news by covering this event.” They were merely recording what they saw and distributing it using tools any fool can use. News outlets, with access to those same tools, got beaten to the punch – because no one has yet figured out how to make money off such coverage. Which is, of course, the bottom line in the business, and why it’s getting screwed by ordinary folks with an Internet account and a camera.

1 comment:

Mister Fweem said... The local paper updated their web content -- 36 hours after their first story went up. They have OK stuff on their Facebook, but nothing much beyond borrowed video.