Exclusivity in a linked-in world. Making sense of fast-changing news stories

June 7, 2009
zzstructure modelling

zzstructure modelling

News stories are increasingly fast-breaking. Traditional ideas of journalistic exclusivity are being challenged by processes in which the news is co-created

It has become a truism to assert that information technology is transforming journalistic processes of news collection and distribution. The current political crisis in the UK makes a good example to explore these ideas.

The traditional scoop still exists

Part of the current political narrative in the UK has a traditional air to it. The Daily Telegraph acquired an exclusive story which became labelled the MPs expenses scandal. It was able to reveal the often outrageous expenses claimed by every Member of Parliament, pacing release of information.

The competitive edge has been maintained over a period of weeks. Other papers and news media were restricted to stories building on the fresh revelations day by day as The Telegraph eeked out its precious competitive resource.

Exclusivity in a linked-in world

But exclusivity in a news story is becoming transformed through the new linked-in world of the internet. Professional news-gathers are in uneasy competition with the amateurs who can also gain recognition and transient fame for being in the right place at the right time. This means being in a place when something dangerous and spectacular happens, and being equipped to capture the story and pass it on.

Remember the spectacular image of Flight 1549 ditching into the Hudson which was transmitted around the world recently? The observer had captured video footage on his mobile phone, and then on to his blog which became a global source of the breaking news.

Journalists are becoming increasingly twitchy that such stories are part of a significant change in journalistic practice. A decline is predicted in the costly business of news collection by ’real’ reporters reporting on the spot as a story breaks.

The broader political picture

But for all its competitive edge, the Telegraph could not retain exclusivity because the story broadened out into a wider range of themes outside its control. The expenses story became enfolded in the wider problems facing the Government. The global financial crisis continued to produce damaging local consequences for millions of people, threatening jobs and pensions.

In less than a week, there has been a succession of stories some connected with the expenses story, some less so. Rumours developed of a plot to force the Prime Minister to resign. Plotters appeared to be leaking information to the Westminster press corps, but not in a way in which any news medium journalists could claim exclusivity except for minor elements of the emerging story.

This took play against a backdrop of local and Euro-elections correctly anticipated by just about everyone who commented as likely to turn out very badly for the Government. To add to the information overload, there were several resignations of government figures.

One Labour MP, who also has a voice as a political commentator, was utterly convinced it was a coordinated plot and expressed the conspiracy theorist view that the events demonstrated evidence of a coordinated plot to overthrow the Prime Minister.

As the weekend approached, the events ebbed and flowed in favour of the Prime Minister holding on. In what appeared as an act of desperation, Gordon Brown initiated a cabinet reshuffle (which was also to precipitate at least one resignation).

At a remarkable Press Conference, Gordon Brown faced an audience of journalists which seemed mostly convinced that the Prime Minister was fabricating a story which was within their grasp to expose.

Could this be a modern version of that Robert Nixon moment when the most powerful politician in the world was brought low by the diligence of journalists?

Gordon Brown wriggled uncomfortably, but despite their increasingly aggressive questioning, the journalists failed to land a fatal blow.

A new approach to news stories

Whew! Stop all the clocks, as a poet put it. Information collection and dissemination has become easier and more rapid. But there is also the evident condition of increasing uncertainty surrounding any story. What’s going on? What’s going on now? New ways of dealing with such uncertainties might not just be desirable but necessary.

I have recently been introduced to new ways of dealing with complex systems. My informant was Alex Hough, a regular contributor to LWD. Alex is experimenting with a host of creative ploys to explore new ways of data management, building architectures which break away from the linearity of old-style narratives. He introduced me to concept of zig-zag data-base construction .

Alex, as well as Zig Zaggers, seem to be pointing towards a world in which news is co-created by groups or communities creating (or maybe co-creating) stories.

ZigZag holds a new, liberated form of data and shows it in wild new ways. Conventional data structures …are created from a rigid top-down specification. ZigZag structures are created from individual relations, bottom-up, and can be irregular and unlimited. Our logo says it all: locally rational, globally paradoxical, yet somehow comprehensible.

Towards that zig-zag way of managing news

In the past, the journalistic edge was based on two different and hard-to-imitate factors. The first was a temporal edge of news producers over news generators. That is being eroded when any news conference can be received globally and through many different media. The second is based on the particular skills of news management.

But even this competitive advantage is being eroded. What if the viewers can work things out in alternative ways which include skills of dealing within those ZigZag structures which are created (I would say co-created) ‘from individual relations, bottom-up, irregular and unlimited’.

Or to use another metaphor, news may be better seen as processes of map making, map testing and map reading. In the past, the journalists read the maps provided by the politicians, tested them, and presented their own versions of the maps.

The journalists still have a vital role to play in trying to reveal hidden stories. But the process of making sense of the stories is more open to outsiders who can weigh up the efforts of politicians and journalists alike, and take part in the mews making consensus. In the zig-zag world, the map reading, map testing, and map making are increasingly collaborative ventures.

Acknowledgements

To Alex Hough for drawing my attention to Zig Zag data structuring . To the