Social media isn’t killing journalism – it is fundamentally changing the system

As we were: an old style newroomGordon Macmillan started the debate last month with a piece about the strongly conflicting views of views of two journalists on the role of social media. The piece itself and the ensuing comments raised an interesting paradox, and one which social media professionals are all too aware of. Many journalists, and indeed brands seem to fall into the ‘love’ or ‘hate’ category when it comes to social media – either thinking it has to be at the forefront of everything they do, or that it’s single-handedly destroying the essence of their industry.

People seem to get so het up about the social media question that they manage to overlook what its role actually is – to create, share and deliver content that is not bound by the traditional rules of mass media. The immediacy of this content, both in terms of time and availability, means that platforms such as Twitter, Facebook (and indeed Audioboo) provide a more direct route to people than traditional news reporting. However, this doesn’t mean that every single story should automatically be farmed out via any and every form of social media available. Content created for a newspaper, for example, may not work in a social environment, and journalists spending hours syndicating the same content across all platforms might miss crucial stories. Jack Lessonberry’s reaction to the memo, while a little wide of the mark, is understandable when you take this into consideration.

However, where social media really comes into its own is when it comes to sourcing, curating and creating original content. Far from being an unnecessary addition to an otherwise strong story, in some cases, social may be the best way to give a complete picture of an event or situation. At Audioboo, we’ve had some incredible audio clips uploaded by the Guardian’s Middle East team. Reporting from the ground, they use Audioboo to communicate events as they happen, conduct interviews and create a recording that not only pinpoints the essence of the news story, but also the atmosphere surrounding it. This isn’t a social media ‘addition’, hastily put together to tick a box, this is quality stand-alone content creation.

This is how journalists and editors can really use social media to their advantage. By seizing the power of its realtime nature as an addition to their traditional skills. Every story has an ideal medium of communication. For some, social media is the best way. Fast-moving events in particular lend themselves to this approach. The London riots for example, were being discussed and reported on Twitter by citizens and journalists alike almost an hour before the first news reports hit the TV. Journalists who found themselves close to a riot zone reported their progress and the unfolding events via social media in a way that would be impossible using any other channel. The mobile element of social media updates means it can cover stories when gaining access with a camera crew would be impossible. Social media gets to the heart of a story in a way that no other channel possibly can.

On the other end of the scale, a long, drawn-out news story also lends itself to the social approach. A reporter might be in a press conference or reporting on a trial for example, and tweet regular, bite-size updates so that the public can keep up with the story without needing to read pages of text. The Leveson enquiry is a good example of this. Quotes and important revelations have been shared throughout the enquiry by journalists on Twitter, providing an alternative to the myriad of long, in depth articles about the case written in the papers or online.

Of course social media – or rather, the technology implications of social media – is changing the nature of journalism. But that’s a process that has being going since Gutenberg turned up with a little piece of technology called a printing press. That was really the beginning of mass media and in some ways we are now seeing the beginning of its end. The beauty of the current wave of social media (although I’d personally replace the social with realtime) is that it can capture and share something instantly, without the self censorship, planning and equipment involved in other forms of reporting. Adding a prescriptive formula to social media reporting often takes away the very thing that makes it interesting – capturing the atmosphere and immediacy of a moment, and really getting to the heart of a story.