The conversation is changing. Or rather, who directs it is changing. Much as we might love the experience of reading a newspaper, the use of a broadsheet as a primary news source these days is waning. Imagine someone reading a wide-open newspaper while walking through a busy subway station. Fumbling through clumsy pages, he seems out of place as others whiz past with eyes glued to smartphones. As social media use—particularly the use of Twitter—becomes more widespread and more sophisticated, people are consuming news at a break-neck speed. Twitter is inflicting whiplash on newspapers and magazines the same way iTunes did on the music industry; rather than purchasing whole albums, most people purchase the songs they like best, resulting in an exposure to music that’s more diverse but less loyal to the artist—or in this case, the news organization. In the past, editors directed the conversation by choosing what stories to place on the front page of the newspaper. They still do this, of course, but average citizens now play a significant role in determining the most talked about stories of the day (or hour) by choosing the articles they will share with friends and followers.
Adding to the buzz of Twitter are bloggers and others who use the platform to promote content they’ve written independently, that is, without ties to a news organization. Blogging and budget cuts have double teamed the journalism industry, resulting in a paradigm shift wherein anyone can call himself a journalist or pundit. While a great many of these citizen journalists are capable writers who do an excellent job of directing the public conversation, the need for reporters who are tied to institutions will always exist.
Without the people who spend 40-plus hours per week reporting and writing, the Twitterverse would grind to a halt, or at least slow down to a sputter. Journalism is much like cooking: it’s easy to learn the basics, but it takes practice to master. Lots of practice. After nearly five years of reporting, I’m still surprised at how challenging it can be to pull a story together and do it well. Some stories are easier than others. Covering an event, for example, is a piece of cake, as it should be for any journalist worth their salt. But there’s always a more interesting, insightful or creative way to tell even those stories that are the journalism equivalent of Easy Mac.
But the real fun—and the real challenge—comes in writing and reporting the stories that aren’t obvious. This is what drew me to feature writing in college, and what later drew me to investigative reporting. I recently began working at The Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit media organization that focuses on investigative journalism that is of interest to the public. Many of the Center’s stories require months, even years, of reporting. There are often hundreds of pages of documents to sift through, mountains of data to parse and scores of sources to call—many of whom do not want to talk to reporters. The question, “What’s the story here?” can be hard to answer, and sometimes the real story is not where it first seemed to be. Sometimes it’s buried in the footnotes of a dry government report, or at the very end of an interview that was about a different topic entirely. But the stories that come out of the Center’s work, and the work of the many organizations like it, are incredibly important. They reveal wrongdoing by corporations and corruption in government. They shed light very real environmental and health issues. They are stories that are hard to come by and hard to tell, stories that require institutional backing to bring to fruition. Through no fault of their own, most bloggers and other citizen journalists do not have the time or resources needed to do this. By the same token, the work of investigative journalists can effect the most change when it’s shared, and Facebook, Twitter and blogs are wonderful tools for doing just that. Regardless of who directs the conversation, what’s most important is that we keep talking.