How "The Internet Changes Everything" for Journalists

Update 1: 26-May-2009
A very kind person @ ABC took the time to read this piece and to give me some valuable comments:
  • We are paid to make editorial decisions ... This is our job.
  • news is about immediate events and happenings and it is short, brief and factual.
  • 'News' is just one kind of ABC broadcast.
    Don't confuse it with our entire output.
  • As to your specific proposals...
    - SPAM is a "dropdead" problem (my words)
    - automatically generated responses are a waste of time... listener input should be read and acknowledged by a real person,
    - but the problem is that we are all under time pressure.

So where to from here?
Appears to be end-of-the-road for this approach.

How does "The Internet Changes Everything" apply to News and Journalism at the ABC - Australia's national broadcaster?

Contents: Background, How the Internet Changes Everything and Proposal

What are the sources of Good Stories?
Do Journalists have a monopoly on sources and Perfect Judgement on story 'size' & importance?
Obviously not.

But how do folk "out of the loop" gain access to the Gatekeepers of the public media?

Consider two cases and what, if anything, has changed now if they were to be repeated:
  • The "Erin Brokovich effect": through persistent talking & listening to ordinary householders, an apparently minor legal matter became massive. The romantic story of the film has the primary evidence, "the smoking gun", only arriving accidentally, and
  • "Dr. Death" allegations at Rockhampton hospital: a set of nurses at the hospital attempted, for years, to raise their concerns internally & externally without getting any 'traction'. Meanwhile, people were needlessly being harmed, there's no media coverage and hence no political interest in investigating the claims.


The ABC News website is clear, well structured, informative and completely useless and frustrating for someone like me who's not sending Press Releases, submitting news tips/vision, already known to journalists or a 'recognised industry expert'.

I spent a week trying to contact any journalist inside the ABC who might be able to pick up a small but important question that goes to the heart of the National Broadband Network Fibre-to-the-Premises proposal of the Rudd Government: the published pricing ($5,500/house) is 2-5 times higher than both the 1995 Optus/Telstra cable TV roll-out to 2-3M houses and recent FTTP installations.

Something looks very wrong, and asking this and consequential questions of both Politicians and Telco experts/consultants would make good copy and put the ABC at the forefront of this News thread.

But I can't get through... E-mails, web-form emails and phone calls (with follow-ups) have drawn a blank. I'm not some major 'name' or consultancy so my 30+ years experience in the field and a bunch of good innovations just don't count... Which is what I have to presume, because I've heard nothing back. Not even an automatic response.

From my position outside, it appears that internally ABC News operates as a set of independent 'silos' - groups that are completely isolated from one another. If you get through to anyone, they might reject it but offer no assistance in what to try next.

The next step is "go to the top". Which would be the newly appointed "Head of News", who shows up in media releases, interviews, in the Organisation Chart [PDF], but not yet in the 'Contacts' page - which curiously has only postal and telephone contact information. That implies there isn't an automatic system to update all relevant webpages. Writing to 'webmaster' should work - but from my experience, I'm disinclined to try.

If there are permanent electronic addresses to contact people in senior roles, they are not disclosed.

Ditto for any set of 'Editors', 'News Desks' or targeted 'Correspondents'.
Is it possible internally ABC News is this chaotic & unorganised?
Is this "Wall of Granite" exposed to outsiders accidental or intentional?

"The Internet Changes Everything"

Radio is a highly personal medium: Philip Adams insight is in speaking to 'the listener'. He knows he is having a personal conversation with individuals, not a group or an 'audience' as you find in theatres and sports grounds.

People listening to radio are more likely to want to continue the conversation on-line. This is facilitated on the ABC site by web-form email, forums and even a 'Complaints' facility.

The News site even has a 'Contribute' page:
If you witness a news event, the ABC wants to hear from you. We would like you to send us your newsworthy photos, videos, audio clips or even written eyewitness accounts for consideration for use on ABC News.

Can you see the assumption in there? It's insular and iconoclastic.
We find 'the news', you listen.

There's a secondary assumption:
News is only 'events' that can be represented in sound-bites and pictures. There is no allowance for informed contributions and bigger stories.

There is a simple test:
Does the system facilitate or block major public interest stories like "Dr. Death" at Rockhampton Hospital, false 'evidence' claims as in the 'Children Overboard' affair, or problems like gross waste/misuse of public money, dereliction of duty, outrageous behaviour of public officials/politicians or endemic corruption?

It is embarrassingly insular to assume that, as a publisher/broadcaster, you always know better than the entire listening audience what is going on.

That one person, using the technology well and wisely, can access and leverage community knowledge, globally, and affect a major outcome is shown by 'PJ' (Pamela Jones) of Groklaw and her influence on the "SCO case". SCO became the final licensee of the AT&T Unix codebase and sought to leverage this into a 'tax' on Linux, a re-implementation loosely based on Unix.
In the intervening years (2003 - 2007) PJ and Groklaw can be credited with unearthing and exposing many of the flaws in SCO’s case, most notably, obtaining and publishing the 1994 settlement in the USL vs BSDi case, which had been hidden from public view and played a significant role in undermining SCO’s claims to the ownership of Unix.
PJ's efforts and collaboration with the global community were instrumental in SCO losing its case. No one company, even vendors like IBM, Novell and AT&T, and certainly no consumer, had all the information nor all requisite manpower to definitively dismiss the claims.

Lesson: One person can make a difference, if they apply themselves and the technology appropriately.

The Internet is a new thing - it's not just a faster, cheaper, better way to do the same things.
If you simple-mindedly automate existing practices, you will open the floodgates and will drown in electronic verbiage.

When the 'barriers to entry', the cost in time, energy & money, of communicating are very low then people will bombard you with messages. The sheer volume and the Signal-to-Noise ratio means the content is worthless: a small army, let alone a single person, won't be able to read everything and duplicate/irrelevant information will drown out any gems therein.

Computers also hold the key to the problem - they are Cognitive Amplifiers.
They enable one person to do the work of 10, 100 or 1,000. More quickly, more cheaply and often 'better' in important ways.

The ABC News Division employs 700 professionals.
They certainly perform very well, but are they sufficient to find and research all worthy stories locally, let alone all local interest stories occurring world-wide?

What's the price to the Organisation, the Australian Media, Government/Politics and the Australian Public of missing important stories??

There are many problems to be addressed and overcome before a useful system can emerge:
  • SPAM
  • Security/malware - controlling & avoiding upload/dissemination
  • Denial-of-Service attacks and webpage and other information hacking,
  • Retaliatory attacks and deliberate mis-information by 'sources'.
  • Mischief makers, Gossips and Defamatory statements.
  • 'Personal Agendas' and Vendettas/Disgruntled persons,
  • Copyright violation and Plagiarism,
  • Nuisance, time-wasting, 'serial pests' and Vexatious persons
Ain't no bed of roses...

There are always going to be people who wish to remain anonymous - either completely or in the usual 'off the record' sense where they do not wish to be publicly quoted, but are willing provide a written statement and, if necessary, to stand by their comments in court.

One key technical method to address many of these problems is strong identification of posters.
This has to be of similar strength to X.509 client certificates for browsers with the concomitant off-line checks issuing them.
Off-line confirmation identity is essential - like checking the whitepages and calling the person, or sending an SMS - up to sighting 'photo id'.

A Proposal:

Immediately, three improvements would help address my frustrations:
  • publish role-based, not personal, email addresses for both senior positions and the various news desks/editors/specialist correspondents that must exist internally.
  • Add a new contact form for story requests, useful information and leads.
    The sorts of things needed for investigative journalists. It must include topic categorisation for automatic distribution to the news desks/story areas.
  • Automatically acknowledge all contacts - by via email or SMS or other simple means.
A backend system is needed to automatically store and distribute input. Something of this sort must already exist - it certainly is there for published stories.

Writing is a skill that must be practised.

Members of the public do not have journalistic skills, nor a sense of what journalists consider 'newsworthy', nor what is needed to successfully pitch a story - even if they have found the right person. The limited feedback I've received amounts to "just write clearly". I know how to do that in a number of domains, but have no idea what journalists want and need.

This can be addressed at 3 levels:
  • An on-line tutorial and example system.
    Including some template questions and suggestions for ways to both condense/summarise your information and to self-assess its 'importance' and 'newsworthiness'.
  • A limited (5 minutes) response by a journalist to any specific questions or advice.
  • The ability to pay for editorial help in constructing a pitch and a even a story.
    The rate would have to be $50-$75/hour for cost recovery, more to act as brake on overuse.
One very strong asset of the ABC is its 'Friends'.

With the increasing numbers of retired Baby Boomers - including ex-journalists, there should be a large pool of free labour available to review, categorise and respond to the information fire hose that would be unleashed.

The Internet means people can volunteer for an organisation without the classic problems of desk-space, real-time supervision, insurance and other entitlements. Volunteers work from home, when and for as long as they like. They could even be self-administering.

At the end of the day, it comes down to just one question:
What does the ABC consider its own and the community's on-going roles, and
how will it stay current with sociological, cultural & technological changes?

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