Slow News in the Twitter Age: PBS NewsHour Correspondent Meets with MCDM Students

Hari Sreenivasa, Hanson Hosein, Monica GuzmanLast week Hari Sreenivasan the Director of Digital Partnerships at PBS and at PBS NewsHour correspondent appeared at a special event hosted by Seattle’s KCTS 9 public television station.  Held a stone’s throw from the Space Needle–Seattle’s iconic architectural monument to progress–at the small station’s studios, this was a special event for students in the University of Washington Master of Communication in Digital Media program and was followed by an interview and event with station donors.

A video of highlights from the conversation with MCDM students and a complete transcript are available on the KCTS 9 website.

According to Sreenivasan, who is a proponent of the growing “slow news” movement, “The value of breaking news is going down faster than you can post it.”

Sreenivasan’s basic message is that there is no point in trying to compete with the wire services on breaking a story. It is more important to be accurate than first. “Do people remember who broke the story first? Hardly. But they will remember if you get it wrong,” Sreenivasan pointed out.

Emphasizing an anyscreen/anytime approach Sreenivasan says: “70 to 85 percent of my job is to move NewsHour to news consumers who don’t come to the six o´clock news show.” Noting that he doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel or create channels, he continues “The challenge is to use the tech tools to distribute the news content to where the audience is already. With Tivo we have gotten used to watching the content at different times than when it airs. Now we are getting used to getting the content where we want it. The challenge is to create a story that is when and where you want it to be and still (be) relevant.”

“iPad, iPhone, TV, online… Share content – so much of the YouTube content that PBS produces is embedded in shared content”, Sreenivasan says.  The NewsHour also increases the value of slow news in the digital world by building widgets and storify versions of the news.

For instance, during the Gulf oil spill in 2010, PBS built a web site widget where users could plug in their guess of how much oil was gushed into the ocean each hour. Later that fall, when full body scans were introduced a various American airports, they built a widget that tracked added wait times at TSA checkpoints for 52 airport. All of this was done with almost no overhead budget.

“I don’t care where you see my content. But I want to get my content to where you are already,” Sreenivasan says.

Sreenivasan argues that one of the most important tasks of journalists working in professional media is to help people cut through the clutter. “Sending a link is lazy. There is value in blog posts that save time, that summarize long reads and help me not (to) have to read it.”

It’s interesting to note that Sreenivasan’s argument is the opposite of the theory Clay Shirky espoused in his landmark 2008 book “Here Comes Everybody.” According to Shirky, with the Internet and social media, everyone is able to publish and market their content at anytime and on any screen. Shirky identifies the old rule of publishing as “filter then publish,” and the new practice is “publish, then filter.”

Sreenivasan believes that people are increasingly unwilling to do the filtering. There is so much news and so many updates, and much of it ends up not being worth the time. A new rule of journalism, Sreenivasan says, is show your work – take the time to verify and confirm the facts, interpret it and make it relevant. Show them how you’ve done the job for them, and added value to the report.

According to Sreenivasan, “We don’t think enough about how we consume the media. We need to be informed about the ingredients,” noting that this is yet another case for slow news and that the “slow news movement” is growing.

Going even further, Sreenivasan says, “There is a large and growing population of smart people who are fed up with what is presented as news today. Commercial networks disenfranchise the audiences the advertisers want to reach.”

Sreenivasan mentions NPR journalist Andy Carvin as the epitome of a crowdsourcing Twitter journalist. Carvin´s Twitter feed is literally a sea of hashtags asking for confirmation of news, independent sources of news, verification of events and so on. For some, this is obviously a worthwhile project, but for Sreenivasan, the constant stream of news items pending verification and interpretation is leading to frustration.

In Sreenivasan’s opinion, Tweets that contain links to useful content rule, while tweets that just lead to chatter make users frustrated. “If I read a blog that isn’t worth anything, I feel like you wasted my time,” Sreenivasan said, noting that wasting time – even if it is only 45 seconds – is almost the biggest no-no of the new media world.

With so many sources, so many channels and so much information out there, people have come to expect that what you lead them to, will be worth their time. That is particularly true for professional journalists, who are there to interpret the news landscape and help people make sense of the information. That is also one of the most valuable assets journalists have over citizen reporters, Sreenivasan argues.

According to Sreenivasan,“You can always make more money, but you can’t earn more time.” The new technology has made almost professional grade tools available to everyone and significantly lowered the barrier of entry for anyone to publish their content. In theory, this makes everyone a reporter, everyone a journalist and everyone a publisher. “But that doesn’t mean that all submitted content adds to the news story,” Sreenivasan says.

“News should be of value to you,” he explains, noting that some networks are already experimenting with letting users submit their stories right from their iPad screens for without pay. But Sreenivasan cautions people to stop and think about their actions for a second. “Facebook and Twitter makes it so easy for us to share and upload, but the cost is that you lose the ownership of that intellectual property once it lives on their servers,” he said.

Harkening back to a sentiment that long defined the news industry, Sreenivasan concludes, “The value of the work we do is the basis for journalism.”

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