As the Web has provided whole new avenues to tell stories, it has also created new methods of information gathering, some of which challenge some of the most basic principles of traditional journalism. Among the most controversial new ways of developing stories is what is being called “process journalism.”
And that’s not process journalism in the public affairs context –incremental reporting on governmental processes or deliberations. This is turning reporting into an open process in which the public is clued in from the time a news organization receives the news tip, at times an unverified one.
One of the news organizations held up as the king of process journalism is TechCrunch. TechCrunch, one of the most popular tech blogs out there, had approached 2 million visitors last month (for perspective, the New York Times had 16.7 million and CNN had 29 million).
TechCrunch is known for breaking stories out of Silicon Valley long before they reach traditional media, but they often do so by blasting rumors or unconfirmed tips across the Internet, at times sending stock prices tumbling (or soaring). They do so with full transparency – disclosing that what they’re printing is thinly sourced or just a rumor. It’s a practice that defies traditional journalistic values, but has been defended as a product of the Internet age.
And it has worked for TechCrunch. They posted rumors of Google’s acquisition of YouTube days before it was public and created a $6 billion swing in Yahoo’s share price on reports that the company was about to enter into a search partnership with Google.
So what is it about the Internet that makes this rapid-fire reporting work for sites like TechCrunch? It’s mainly the fact that they can update their posts as many times as necessary, never having to settle on a final product. That’s a sharp contrast to a TV station or newspaper.
In online news, there’s no deadline or no fixed newscast time. Instead, the story can evolve as long as the story stays alive. Mass-produced media don’t have that luxury. The story is more episodic by nature, and there are a fixed number of times the story can be printed or aired.
If the New York Times prints a rumor – a rumor in the truest sense of the word – it’s going to sit on the newsstand all day even if they found it to be untrue five minutes after their deadline. If TechCrunch posts a rumor and has it squashed five minutes later, the post can be immediately amended.
Explains Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor at The City University of New York: “It’s a matter of timing, of the order of things, of the process of journalism. Newspaper people see their articles as finished products of their work. Bloggers see their posts as part of the process of learning.”
And that’s exactly how bloggers like TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington use their posts – as tools to learn more. “The fact is that we sometimes can’t get to the end story without going through this process,” Arrington writes. “CEOs don’t always take our calls when we’re asking about speculative rumors. But when a story is up and posted, it’s amazing how many people come out of the woodwork to give us additional information.”
Cluing readers in at the earliest stage crates a more loyal readership that feels closer to the process, Arrington says, and represents the highest form of transparency. He argues that his organization’s methods put them in a position to hold officials’ feet to the fire and drive the reporting process. And often, the site’s readers get involved as well when well-connected readers turn into valuable tipsters.
He also argues that this process often kicks off the reporting process for larger, traditional news organizations. “The only people who don’t like it are competitors who like to point out that a story was partially wrong, and that they got it right later. But the fact is that they didn’t even know there was a story to begin with. Our original post kicked off the process, and they, like us, started digging for the absolute truth.”
Like many of the stories in the blogosphere, the reporting techniques online are still evolving, with major implications for online news.
Will different standards emerge online than what exist in print? What does this mean for public relations professionals who are faced with a rumor being blasted across the Internet? Does process journalism performed by bloggers leave room for long-form, analytical journalism by mainstream organizations who no longer have to worry about simply being first? How does process journalism vary from cable news, political trial balloons or rumors about coaching changes that regularly appear in the sports pages?