October 12, 2006

Brave New World

It’s the year 2010, and an underground subway station in the center of London has been bombed.

Within minutes, a British businessman leaving on a trip receives a text message on his cell phone alerting him to the incident. Consequently, he directs his cab driver to take an alternative route to the train station so he will make his connection. En route, he logs onto BBC News.com via a computer portal that is now standard equipment in London cabs and sees the first pictures of what appears to be a major terrorist attack in the heart of the city. After boarding his commuter train, he checks his phone throughout the journey for instant updates.

On the scene, one of the first victims of the attack, a 20-year-old college student, staggers out of the subway station. Though dazed and shaken, she contacts the BBC News and goes on the air live, reporting via a camera on her phone even before the emergency responders arrive. As the week unfolds, she will produce a video blog each day that documents her recovery, an online feature attracting many well-wishers from around the world.

In the south of England, a retired schoolteacher rushes to her living room and turns on the television for more information about the attack. The first images she sees are those delivered by the student through her phone.

This is the brave new world of information technology in the year 2010 – according to a video that aired Oct. 6 at the Online News Association conference in Washington DC. In a keynote address at the event, deputy director for BBC News Adrian Van Klaveren sketched out a scenario in which a mix of citizen participation and emerging technologies will increasingly shape the future of news.

That scenario is certainly not as jarring as one in a recent mock documentary in which a giant media entity called “Googlezon” obliterates traditional journalism as we know it by 2014.And the so-called democratization of journalism and use of new media platforms are already growing trends, as evidenced by the role of phone-generated images after the 7/7/2005 London terror attacks.

Still, Van Klaveren envisions a news environment markedly different from the one that has dominated the media business until now.

“Today we focus on packaging, making content work on all platforms,” he told the conference. “Tomorrow we’ll focus on devices and distribution.”

In this scenario, the delivery of news will continue to be available faster and on an increasing number of platforms. News will literally be accessible at one’s fingertips, with cellular phones and other wireless devices leading with traditional media playing a more secondary role. (A survey released this summer by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that only 7% of the respondents said they got their news from a wireless device like a cell phone or PDA. But that number jumps to 13% in the 18 to 29 year-old demographic.)

At the same time, citizens will be producing a great deal more content, especially as news breaks and they can provide news outlets with information well before local TV crews can get to the scene.Web sites will become the new public square where people gather to read and watch first-hand accounts from ordinary citizens who will be writing their own commentary and shooting their own photos and video.

Several key questions remain to be answered in this changing news universe. For one thing, it is unclear if and how these new information platforms will generate the kind of revenue that once subsidized news gathering and delivery in such traditional outlets as daily newspapers and network news broadcasts.

Van Klaveren also noted that the BBC has just six employees to verify user-generated content, which can involve reading up to 80 emails a second—as well as citizen-generated visual content—as was the case during the 2005 attack on the London underground.

So if citizens are to play a more active role in the production of news content, can journalism safeguard its historical commitment to verification and accuracy?Van Klaveren believes that the profession has no choice but to successfully incorporate these streams of homegrown content if news is to remain relevant to the growing numbers of information consumers he calls “clickers and flickers.”