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October 2, 2009

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Undertow

My apologies for a slow week posting here--in addition to rewriting the site and learning a bit more about Android, you may have heard that there's been some excitement going around at CQ. It's been busy.

But we're not the only journalistic institution feeling a little shaken up. In the aftermath of the Google Wave invite frenzy, Mark Milian of the LA Times got a little overexcited. He lists some "wild ideas" they've had while testing the technology. And I am all for wild ideas, but I think he's missing the point. The problem in newsrooms isn't the lack of technology, it's that journalists don't use it.

Case in point: most of Milian's suggestions involve using Wave as a kind of glorified content management system--using it to log notes during collaborative stories, archiving interview recordings, or providing a better update mechanism. I absolutely understand why such a thing seems like a dream come true, because as far as I can tell most CMSs in the journalism world are appalling (often because they were geared toward print needs, and have been jury-rigged into double-duty online). But look realistically at what he's asking for: effectively, it's a wiki (albeit a very slick one) and a modern editorial policy. This isn't rocket science.

We've had the tools to do what Milian wants for years now. The problem, in my experience, has been getting reporters and editors to cooperate. They're an independent lot, and we still sometimes have trouble getting them to use our existing centralized, collaborative, versioned publishing toolchain, much less a complex and possibly overwhelming web app like Wave. Moreover, what's the real benefit? Will we get more readers with prettier correction notes? Will the fact-checking be more accurate if it's transmitted over AJAX? Can Wave halt the erosion of trust in American journalism? No? Then it's kind of a distraction from the real problem, as far as I'm concerned. I mean, I'd love it if all the reporters I work with knew their way around a data visualization. I'd like a pony, too. But at the end of the day, what matters is the journalism, not the tools that were used to create it.

Where Milian might have a point is in the centralization of Wave, with its integration of audio, video, and image assets. The catch is where it's centralized: with Google. I doubt many newsrooms are incredibly keen to trust reporter's notes, call recordings, and editing chatter entirely to a third-party, particularly one with which they already consider themselves at odds. There are real questions of liability, safety, and integrity to be considered here. Not to mention what happens if one of those interlinked services goes down (I'm looking at you, GMail). If we're headed for a griefer future (and I think we are), maybe it's wise not to leap headfirst into that cloud just yet.

So look: everything he's written is a fine idea. I agree that they'd be great options to have, and you'll never find me arguing against better content management. But the barrier to entry has never been that we lacked a Google Wave to make it happen--it's been an ideological resistance to the basic principles of new media publishing in newsrooms around the country. Until you change that, by convincing journalists of the value of community interaction/link traffic/transparency/multimedia, all the fancy innovations in the world won't make an impact.

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