140 characters in search of a story

Social media are reshaping political coverage in Ottawa. For better and for worse. This week, we feature Ashley Csanady‘s story from the winter issue of The Ryerson Review of Journalism.

Kady O’Malley needs a BlackBerry. Brow furrowed, she hurries into a large West Block room with rectangular windows and a view of a statue of Queen Victoria. She’s supposed to live-blog a government operations committee meeting, but a botched software update has thrown a wrench into the works. Fellow reporter David Akin gallantly offers his smartphone. O’Malley hesitates. She knows the sacrifice her colleague would be making if he surrendered such an essential means of communication in the middle of the news day. And so her live-blog — an innovation she brought to Parliament Hill at Maclean’s and now does for Inside Politics on CBC.ca — is on the verge of, in internet patois, epic fail.

A journalist who won’t be covering the committee comes to the rescue, much to Akin’s and O’Malley’s relief. The meeting begins and O’Malley’s face is stoney as her fingers fly over the tiny keys. It’s more than a phone for her; it’s a prosthesis. She’s so dedicated to the gadget that she’s been known to carry two of them at a time and even named her dog BlackBerry.

In an Ottawa where BlackBerrys are unholstered and placed on tables like guns in a spaghetti western, the ubiquity of smartphones has changed how the news is produced, consumed and digested. The handheld digital age established a new level of speed and interaction in the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery: today’s 140-character quip can evolve into tomorrow’s A1 story. The desire for constant updates has expanded as more and more Canadian readers ingest information in new ways, whether on their computers, tablets or phones. The rising Twitter culture on the Hill and the desire to break news on that platform, regardless of its relevance to average readers, has evolved the scoop. And this shift is either making journalism more integral to democracy than it’s ever been — or the animals have taken over the farm.

Granted, the Hill has always been obsessed with speed. Blogging and breaking news online were commonplace a few years ago, just as 24-hour cable news accelerated the cycle three decades ago. There is something different, however, about having instant internet access, everywhere, all the time, in the palm of everyone’s hand—reporters, politicians and flacks alike. For political junkies who get their fix online, the “news cycle” is no longer cyclical; it’s a constant stream of fact, rumour and opinion, slurried together and pumped out at high speed.

Criticisms of the press gallery haven’t changed much over the years: it’s a bubble full of cozy insiders; reporters chase scandals instead of digging into relevant issues; and journalists and politicians are constantly drinking each others’ bathwater. Some critics argue that the increased speed just amplifies the same old problems. Others fret that online coverage leaves Luddite readers out of the political loop, though their experience is changing too because Canadians don’t have to be on Twitter to have their news landscape radically reshaped by the media elite who are. There are also valid concerns about the consequences, such as the loss of verification, editing and analysis. But the new standard of always-on journalism has the potential to change the equation for the better, too. Social media throw a spotlight on previously obscure political happenings that never would have warranted an inch of newsprint, making reporters more accountable and how they do their job more transparent.

Viewers and readers can now hold reporters to account more easily than they ever could in the domesticated confines of the letters page. “I respectfully disagree with @RosieBarton’s characterization of Canada’s Senate,” Joseph Uranowski, then a political science student from the University of Toronto, tweeted in May, during one of many discussions about Senate reform. Instead of ignoring the dissent, the CBC reporter replied: “Fair enough! But they are unelected!” Then, Brian G. Rice, president of a Liberal riding association in Mission, B.C., chimed in: “But the Senate is appointed by those who are elected. Having two systems to select the two houses is not a bad thing, IMHO.” With this exchange, Rosemary Barton was acting as something more than a broadcast journalist: she was one influential node in a network of commentary, connecting a student in Toronto and a party operative in a B.C. riverside community. It’s a phenomenon that Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has named the “mutualization” of journalism—a continuous collaboration between reporter and reader, who follow a story together as it evolves. The pace isn’t just faster; it’s dissolving the walls between the press gallery and the public. Like its print counterpart on crack, digital reporting is an odd mix of frivolity and policy. The public’s preference is for the chocolate journalism they love to loathe, not the spinach they claim to crave but often fail to digest. So readers will follow a scandal religiously, all the while bemoaning its existence. But this is nothing new. What the appetite for constant updates has bred is a new type of journalist: the perpetual reporter. Read the rest.