For the British journalist Peter Beaumont, foreign affairs editor of the Observer, the revolution in Egypt revealed more than the power of the people in triumphing over repressive regimes; on a personal level, he discovered something new about his working practices.
Beaumont trained as a journalist in the days before the World Wide Web, but, like most of his profession, he has integrated new technologies into his news-gathering techniques as they’ve emerged. Covering the events in Cairo during the Internet blackout in Egypt was like taking a step back in time.
“We went back to what we used to do: Write up the story on the computer, go to the business center, print it out and dictate it over the phone,” he said. “We didn’t have to worry about what was on the Internet; we just had to worry about what we were seeing. It was absolutely liberating.”
The Web’s effect on news reporting is considered the most clear evidence that this is a revolutionary technology: News editors — and in some cases, the governments that they observe — are no longer the gatekeepers to information because costs of distribution have almost completely disappeared. If knowledge is power, the Web is the greatest tool in the history of the world.
The process that happens before a story is published has also been transformed. The Web has become the go-to point for the globe when it comes to getting information; it’s the same for reporters. Online, they find a multiplicity of perspectives and a library of available knowledge that provides the context for stories. Increasingly, the stories are coming from the Web.
Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University and former editor of Guardian.co.uk, identifies coverage of the attacks on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, as the incident that foreshadowed how events are covered today.
“Linear TV just could not deliver,” she said. “People used the Web to connect to the experience by watching it in real time on TV and then posting on message boards and forums. They posted bits of information they knew themselves and aggregated it with links from elsewhere. For most, the delivery was crude, but the reporting, linking and sharing nature of news coverage emerged at that moment.”
For reporters in Egypt, however, their greatest frustration was not that they were disconnected from the context provided by the network, but that they struggled to get their stories out. In fact, Beaumont found the silence a relief.
“The way [Egypt] was reported didn’t have all the ifs and buts coming from looking over your shoulder to try to figure out what the world is doing at the moment or who’s saying what. You just had the news and the news was happening right in front of you,” he said.
More generally, technology has improved the processes of identifying stories that are newsworthy. Feeds from social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter provide a snapshot of events happening around the world from the viewpoint of first-hand witnesses, and blogs and citizen news sources offer analytical perspectives from the ground faster than print or television can provide.
Paul Mason, economics editor on BBC TV’s Newsnight, uses these tools to get an angle on what’s happening and what’s important.
“If you are following 10 key economists on Twitter and some very intelligent blogs, you can quickly get to where you need to be: the stomach-churning question, ‘OK, what do I do to move this story on?’” he said.