New Media, Crowdsourcing, and Doing It Wrong

Yesterday, a small disaster struck the community I live in. 72,000 people were asked to evacuate their homes and shelter south of the city because officials felt they were at risk of inhaling toxic fumes from an accidental chemical warehouse fire.

Briefly, chatter about the evacuation caused the word “Bryan” to trend into the top ten topics on Twitter.

As an observer, safely on the edges of the affected area, there were several interesting points that arose out of the incident. In particular, the role of traditional media took a backseat for many during the event compared to internet “crowdsourced” channels like Twitter, Facebook, and a local internet forum.

Commercial media sources were slow to jump on the story. The warehouse was destroyed at approximately 12:05pm, possibly in an explosion that was heard throughout the area. (I heard an unusual loud noise at that time, 20 miles away, but no one has officially stated that there was an explosion and there were thunderstorms in the area.) Within 30 minutes, there was a post on TexAgs.com’s Aggieland forum, which locals use to discuss current events and gossip. Before the Bryan, TX government had even managed a press release, the community forum had correctly identified the location of the fire from scanner traffic and had looked up what the facility supplied. There was a chemistry grad student talking about the toxicity of the chemicals involved and other materials and chemicals that may also be stored in the facility.

Throughout the first six hours of the incident, a community of casual onlookers with no particular expertise reported the news faster, more accurately, and in greater detail than traditional media sources.

When news and television sources did get on the story (at about 1:40 to 2pm, 2 hours after the event), they initially reported some wildly inaccurate information — locating the source of the blaze on the incorrect side of town (2 miles to the east of the freeway as opposed to 2 miles west) and that the evacuation was within a 3 mile radius instead of a 1/2 to 3/4 mile radius. The online community noted and mocked those errors. In a more serious incident, these errors could have panicked or killed thousands.

With all of this information at the community’s disposal, few people were tuning in to major news stations. The internet was talking about the exact source and likely makeup of the smoke, and had identified the streets within the evacuation zone. The television news was still broadcasting ‘Ellen’ without so much as a scrolling banner. Which would you listen to? In short, “crowdsourced” or “new media” carried the day.

A feather in the cap of Twitter: Several authoritative groups were using twitter to disseminate information to great effect. Bryan Fire Department, City of College Station, The Eagle, and KBTX News all were tweeting regularly. The City of College Station also updated their Facebook page regularly with news and updates. These sources were essential to some of the ‘refugees’, especially people who had the foresight to route those source updates to their mobile phones as SMS messages. The local cell tower infrastructure did fine on my Sprint service, although data was quite slow.

After things had quieted down for the night, I got an email from KBTX’s station manager. Someone had cut and paste a few of my comments from the forum thread to him, and knowing my ‘true identity’, provided my email address. He asked me if I could describe how the station didn’t live up to my expectations, and how they could improve. He explained that they are tied to official information sources that aren’t at all interested in talking to reporters and have to wait for information to be released to them. How can I explain: It’s not KBTX, or any other one news source that fell short. It’s the entire industry that’s failing to deliver.

As the KBTX manager pointed out for me, news reporters have forgotten how to investigate and interpret what they’re reporting. Smile pretty, fluff your hair, and parrot what the press release says! Investigation and the input of subject matter experts is an opportunity to provide added value that can’t be gleaned from a stream of twitter posts or a web forum. This opportunity is frequently being missed.

Let’s back up and examine “free” for a moment, because part of this is a money thing. The attitude of many content providers is that they’re now providing their product for free, or at a lower price (and lower profit) than they used to. Apparently, none have realized their service has become a commodity and is no longer valuable. Wire service news, television, and newspapers were novel and valuable in the days when information traveled slowly and expertise or interpretative ability was hard to come by. Now that traditional media is slower than the internet and no longer provides unique points of view or in-depth reporting, where is the value?

On the other hand, the The New Yorker has gained readership by raising it’s rates (as has the Economist and many others), and David Simon has pointed out in the Columbia Journalism Review that “giving things away” isn’t a good business plan. Professional news sources “of record” do have one valuable nature over ‘crowdsourced’ news: legitimacy. Compare it to selling bottled water. Bottled water is supposed to be pure. Tap water is questionable and tastes bad; anything less is sewage. But extending our examples above, magazines like The Economist provide a level of in-depth reporting that goes beyond water. So does the fact checking staff behind The New Yorker. Champagne will always cost more than water. What your average local newspaper, wire service, or news television provides is just plain ol’ tap water… with a “local color” spot of some puppies before they fade to the advertisements. Who would pay for that?

(Humorously enough, The Associated Press is still trying to shut the barn door long after the horses have been turned into Salami de Cavallo. Wire services are just water delivered quickly. There’s no value to be had there anymore. It’s a commodity with universal distribution.)

Beyond a misstated value, traditional media has missed the boat in a number of ways. This has been tackled (to death, ad nauseum) by several notables over the past several months: Steve Johnson, “Old Growth Media And The Future Of News”, Clay Johnson, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable”, and in the form of a compiled series of tweets, Dan Johnson, “The Following Account of My Short Career at The New Yorker”. Long story short: The end is nigh for many traditional media organizations, and by and large, not many are adjusting gracefully.

The amount of information that’s available via the internet is immense. Steven Johnson, in the above linked article, puts it well when he walks readers through the amount of information he had available 20 years ago compared to today. His information lead time went from months to weeks to minutes within a decade. At the same time, the amount of information and interpretive commentary on any one topic increased exponentially, from a couple thousand words per month to tens of thousands per day.

It doesn’t matter how much video that modern television stations, radio stations, and newspapers stream. It doesn’t matter how much they use twitter, facebook, or how many blog posts or podcasts they publish. They’re just not getting it in their hearts. Like a cargo cult, most are aping the actions of Gawker and MacRumors in the hopes that the rewards will be delivered from on high. There is absolutely no comprehension of the depth of the change — there are excuses about how much content they’re “giving away” online, how many new technologies they’ve adopted or tried, and strategies they’re now trying to attract or retain “market share.” But they still have the same damned Netflix pop-unders on their website. Is the picture clear yet? No? Try adjusting the rabbit ears.

Oh, there are solutions. Gawker is a great example of a flat, accurate, profitable, fast-moving internet investigative media source that has broad viewership. Look at the much-maligned Drudge Report. Even CNN does an excellent job with their websites, despite the insufferable cheesiness of iReport. Can your local news do all those things? You bet. It’s even possible without tearing the entire organization apart! Unfortunately, it’s not likely to happen that way.

Newspapers, radio, and television stations, and traditional commercial media sources in general, are still operating at the bandwidth of a telephone and are ‘reporting’ by talking to people one at a time. Despite the amazing array of sources, stories, and information floating around that’s accessible without leaving one’s home, these highly trained journalists are failing to get basic facts right with millions of dollars in equipment and support staff. Trying the same old things over isn’t working. From the outside, it’s obvious that they’re just providing a dribble of plain old tap water and trying to sell it. The internet is a raging torrent where anyone with a decent filter can make as much of their own potable water as they want.

The next step gets pretty obvious when you put it that way, doesn’t it?


Addendum:

  • The White House has issued press passes to at least one blogger, and the city of New York may soon do so as well.
  • Some of the above mentioned commentary about the Bryan plant blaze was lost in the swirling mass of sewage that is the General Board. I won’t link there, you don’t want to go.
  • You really need to read the piece by Steven Johnson. Here’s the link again. He says what I said, but in far more illustrative and elegant words..
  • 1August2009: Slight correction: Apparently the fire began around 11am and first responders were on the scene within five minutes. Hazmat teams were notified by 11:30 that they were going to be called up; there was a TEEX exercise happening at Kyle Field.
  • 1August2009: A firsthand account from a firefighter: “About the time I pulled up, the smoke changed from orange to green briefly. The wind picked up and blew some of the smoke at a tree, and you could just see birds plummeting to the ground. That’s when I knew we had a serious problem on our hands.”

One thought on “New Media, Crowdsourcing, and Doing It Wrong

  1. thanks for the mention of bfd using social media. being a life long nerd i mentioned it to admin a while back & they thought it was a cool idea… though they didn’t really understand twitter yet. i am working on increasing our tweeting w/ run stats etc. we are also on facebook now. i realized we had a fairly active facebook communiity, locally, so figured i might as well try to reach everyone. once i went in as part of the hazmat team my updates got a little slower as i had to work… trying to get some other people (admin) to be not scared of it so they can update. anyway we are getting there. thanks again!

    twitter @chrismartintx @bryanfd
    facebook bit.ly/bfdFB

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