When information and events get reported by ordinary people, traditional news organisations have to redefine their roles.

As 2011 comes to a close, the year's biggest events have mainstream media newsrooms pondering what these mean for their future. When revolutions and nuclear disasters are reported by ordinary people on mobile phones, what price conventional newsroom technology or the editorial skills honed over several years?

 At an editors' summit in Hong Kong which drew media biggies from across continents,   a few discoveries were being made. One, that leading media companies are now employing digital strategists to help them figure out how to go forward. Two, the hierarchy in the business is changing — the audience is no longer composed of passive recipients of what you choose to put out. Be nice to them — they threaten your future.

 The head of digital strategy at ZDF, Germany, was there to point gently to a need for a change in the journalists' attitude: “We have to go from being oracle to guide. The lecture is becoming a conversation.  As the audience gets more active, they receive and alter our content. Sources go direct, we lose control. Reverse your angle — the 20{+t}{+h} century info flow is changing. Don't look down at audience. Look across the table.  Make the prime time newscast a conversation with the newscaster.”

 There is even a new word in the vocabulary of the media business — pro-sumption, where the producer and consumer are becoming the same.

 

Changing roles

Three, the description of what newsroom editors do is changing. They need to think of themselves as curators.  Someone who will decide what to take from a variety of sources for the news package he is putting out. The director for new media at Al Jazeera put it succinctly: “Monitoring, curating and then pushing it out again.” In Egypt, he reminded people, the first images were both produced and distributed outside the mainstream media — the video of a youth before a water canon.

 The editor's job then becomes one of verifying local news sources. How do you do that? You look for landmarks in the video which will verify the authenticity of the location, you gauge the weather, you try to call the guy you see in the video. Get the real name and ID of every citizen journalist. Speed versus accuracy is the challenge.

 Open source was a term to describe software; now it is being used to describe sources in journalism. The managing editor of CNN Digital said that when Egypt, Japan and Libya happened in turn, they had to figure out a format to integrate citizen journalism into their reporting. Now they have a section called Open Story where they marry their own reports with those of citizen journalists.  

 Joi Ito, who is now the director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was asked whether the tsunami in Japan had changed the perception of the media. He replied that it had changed the perception of the establishment in Japan, including the media. There was a loss of confidence in the media. Post Fukushima a new online project called safecast.org was launched, showcasing data which could help you measure nuclear radiation.  

 The role of the journalist is changing when there are many sites and sources for data, and you no longer need a journalist to find information. Instead, it becomes their job to take  different sources of information and compare. So, number four, the skill sets needed in the newsroom are changing. The future lies increasingly in what is being called data journalism. You now need people in the newsroom who understand computer programming, who understand data analysis, who understand statistics.

Curating data

In 2012, the push will be for data journalism, as field reports come in partly from citizens on the ground. As governments increasingly put data online, journalists will have to learn ways to plumb it. The editor of La Nacion in Costa Rica described how for a huge project which examined the criminal records of 1,500 electoral candidates, her paper  procured a software which the FBI uses to throw up names of people under various categories. But then because this is journalism and you have to give the right to reply no matter how many hundreds are being investigated together in a computerised operation, they had to set up a call centre to call every one of the candidates and ask them what they had to say!

 There was also a note of caution about where not to follow social media blindly. Ignore the trending on Twitter, said Ito.  To follow that could lead you down a hysterical path.

 Much of the meeting of this new formation of editors — the Global Editors Network — was about the rise of the mobile.  Have you redesigned your website for viewing on the mobile? And in a country like India, were newsrooms using them enough to get news from places where you did not have correspondents? 

 2012 can be much the same or more frenetic than 2011  depending on how much you are inclined to keep up with the Joneses in the new four-screen news ecology — TV, computer, tablet, mobile.  The anxious question being asked at the end was, what will the fifth screen be and how soon will it emerge?