July 07, 2005

London Bombings: The Unread Newspaper

London subway evacuationThree newspapers lie unopened and unread on my kitchen table.

The fact that I subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle tells you much about the trust I place in newspapers as an institution. The fact that I didn't give them more than a fleeting glance this morning speaks just as strongly to their uselessness on a day of major news.

Stories, photos, audio and video reporting on the horrific bombings in London fill the airwaves, top the web sites of news organizations and occupy the attention of the blogosphere. The front page of the Times is dominated by a photo showing a throng of Londoners cheering for the city's successful Olympic bid. How sadly outdated it is today.

My wife is in London on business, an investment conference not far from one of the tube stations that was bombed. She took a cab today, by chance, rather than the subway and is fine. At 3:15 a.m., a call from her mother woke me, to tell me about the attacks. It took me an hour to locate my wife, an hour spent on the phone and on the Internet, finding telephone numbers, reading the BBC and Yahoo and Google news.

The first-day story no longer belongs to newspapers - and hasn't for a long time. It isn't even the property of professional journalists any longer.

Jeff Jarvis and Steve Yelvington, among others, posted the picture you see on this page. It was taken by Adam Stacey, a passenger on the "Northern line, just past Kings Cross" some time after the bombing on that train and uploaded to a moblog (then picked up by the BBC.) Terrorism made Stacey a victim; technology made him a reporter. Jarvis writes:

"We have now reached the point where we could be assured that when a big news event happened, witnesses would be online with accounts of it in a matter of minutes. News was never like that. But now, that's the way it is." (Emphasis added.)

"That's the way it is." Did Jarvis choose the venerable Walter Cronkite's signature sign-off purposely? Even Cronkite would now add: " and it will never be like that again."

The participatory nature of the news coverage of the London bombings - from photos on the BBC to Flickr, from blogger Norm Geras and to David Carr in London (posting in Samizdata) - erases the line between those affected by the news and those who cover the news.

In a world of digital empowerment and reflexive communication, we are all reporters.

Where does that leave newspapers - the most static of the old media, yet, ironically, the platform with the greatest amount of professional journalistic resources? Still a producer, yes, because these journalists continue to have skills and access that citizen journalists don't, but less a reporter and more of a story-teller (perhaps narrator or emcee is a better choice) and an aggregator.

The media circus needs a ringmaster - and newspapers can fill that role.

What do I want in my Wall Street Journal, New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle when I pick them up from the porch tomorrow? I want the type of reporting that professionals can still do better than citizens, but also pointers to the best of the citizen work:

 Context: The history of terrorism in London and on the European continent.
 Update: What happened to the Madrid subway bombing suspects?
 Local: What are the safety measures on the New York subway system? On BART in the Bay Area? How have they changed since the Madrid bombing? What money is involved?
 Geography: A large, data-rich info-graphic of what happened (which so hard to read on-line).
 People like me: London is filled with American tourists. Tell me their stories.
 Debate: An op-ed page devoted to liberty vs. security.
 Voices: The words and images of those who were there.

What kind of newspaper would you make for tomorrow? We need everything but the news.

UPDATE: Wall Street Journal (online) reports: "As journalists scrambled to cover the London bomb blasts, ordinary citizens went online to share pictures snapped by cameraphones and reports of what they saw."

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Posted by Tim Porter at July 7, 2005 10:45 AM

Tim, I thought the exact same thing this morning when I opened my LA Times. I know they will have great coverage over the next few days, but for now, I need MSNBC and BBC online.

Very glad your wife is safe. Be well.

Posted by: Gary Goldhammer on July 7, 2005 09:58 AM

What a powerful statement your post makes. I agree with you that our traditional newspapers and periodicals have become simply pieces of "historical context" and are often cited by us bloggers when providing background to our posts. Of course, I don't think the major newspapers are readily accepting this role because it's less profitable.

The new media paradigm will be led by whoever fiugres out how to embrace it and build a successful business model around it.

Posted by: Jason Smith on July 7, 2005 01:56 PM

I was thinking the same thing when my 78-year-old father e-mailed me a link to the BBC. In response, I sent him links to Instapundit, Tim Blair and little green footballs.

It honestly didn't occur to me to check with an MSM source first.

Thanks for articulating it so well.

Posted by: beloml on July 7, 2005 02:47 PM


created to show that no matter what they do, we're not afraid, forget British Stoicism, people who do this are pitiful to us.


Posted by: alfie on July 7, 2005 02:56 PM

Tim, I got up this morning, popped open my laptop, saw the CNN headline. Went immediately to Jarvis, Instapundit, and other blogs where I can find links to live blogging from the scene. I viewed the Flickr photo pool from citizen journalists who took photos with their camera-phones. I read first-hand accounts. It was remarkable. The closest I came to MSM was reading the email collection at the BBC site.

I switched on cable news, learned nothing, and went back to the internet. Newspapers? Huh? What could they possibly add?

I love newspapers. Worked at them for 10 years, and another five at magazines. But these days, I write on my blog and do other things, like read local news at Arborupdate.com. Not the local newspaper.

Wow. What a change. I never would have imagined the internet would be my best source of breaking news.

Posted by: JennyD on July 7, 2005 03:16 PM

Blogs + Forums + Wikis + Chats + Social Networks + Video + Audio + Photos + Maps = Newspaper 2.0

Posted by: Dimitar Vesselinov on July 7, 2005 06:48 PM

Mr. Porter,

Your post says you spent a lot of time "reading the BBC and Yahoo and Google news."

Then you said: "The first-day story no longer belongs to newspapers - and hasn't for a long time. It isn't even the property of professional journalists any longer."

I won't quibble with the first sentence, but do you realize how ridiculous your second sentence is?

I'll wager that "professional journalists" provided most, if not virtually all, of the content you were reading on the BBC, Yahoo and Google News.

When one relies on blog accounts, you have to do, um, a lot of sifting. "It was dark." "People were covered with blood." "There was a big noise." None of the blog information was novel or surprising, nor were the cell-phone photos particularly illustrative.

Being somewhat familiar with London, I wanted to know -- where did the bombs go off? How many people were killed? Were suicide bombers or explosive packages involved? Etc. etc.

It was possible to find out this information in a few minutes of scanning the hated "MSM." If I relied on bloggers, I'd probably still be waiting. Most, if not all, of the big-picture information they pass along anyway comes from, uh, the evil, discredited MSM.

I would wager that the newspapers on your table have always been useless when they were printed on the day before something happened.

Posted by: Dexter Westbrook on July 7, 2005 08:02 PM

My alarm clock is a radio, tuned to a local public radio news station. So that's how I first heard it. I went out to the living room where my husband and two kids, 1 and 3, were, and asked my husband to change the channel from Blue's Clues to CNN.

This seems funny to me now because I'm a huge reader of blogs (gulp, I subscribe to 800 RSS feeds. Things can get out of control!) and I generally feel that I'm way out in front of both TV and the paper.

Looking back, I think I did this because cable news was how I found out about 9/11. My oldest was only a few months old. I wasn't used to being at home alone with a kid -- I missed my noisy office. So I'd leave cable news on in the background. And that's how I saw it first.

News of this sort is still very visual; blogs aren't quite pushing video routinely yet (but they're getting there; later this month I'll be seeing Ryanne Hodson, a videoblogger, speak -- what she and her fellow videobloggers manage to put out amazes me).

I had planned on taking my kids to the Science Museum today. I thought for awhile about not doing it, while I drank a cup of coffee. Then we went out and did it anyway, and saw the safe explosions of the electricity exhibit.

Posted by: Lisa Williams on July 7, 2005 08:49 PM

Jenny mentioned magazines. Could Tim's suggested future newspaper be described as a daily magazine?

Posted by: Dell Adams on July 7, 2005 10:37 PM

Osama Bin Forgotten...1,397 days and still breathing...

Posted by: Phil R. Up on July 8, 2005 10:04 AM

Dexter, you don't get it, do you?

Flood of mobile phone photos and videos documented blast aftermath

Posted by: Dimitar Vesselinov on July 8, 2005 10:25 AM

Dexter - you can't lump all corporate news sources into one category and call it "MSM." Tim's point, as I understand it, was that newspapers, which are updated once a day, are insufficient as a medium for *breaking news*.

TV and cable news are better, but they have the opposite problem. They need to provide updates 24/7, so even when they have no new information, they have to keep talking, often leading to irrelevant commentary or unfounded speculation, disguised as "breaking news updates."

Blogs sit in the middle - they can update as often or as infrequently as the actual news demands. That's their advantage. Their disadvantage is the resources & access they (currently) lack, which belongs with the MSM today.

I've written a fairly extensive essay on this, which you can find at:


Posted by: Brian Greenberg on July 8, 2005 10:28 AM

I have a question out of curiosity more than anything else. Did each of the blogs and Web sites that used Adam Stacey's cell phone photo ask permission or pay for it, or is that something only professional news organizations are expected to do? I'm just trying to get a handle on the etiquette of something like that.

Posted by: Brian on July 8, 2005 11:21 PM

Tim, how correct you are - a look from a little different angle, and you can see how reporters who protect law enforcement from news such as police brutality are now being trumped by bloggers, average citizens on the web - cam phones now documenting atrocites many citizens thought were just hype. Rodney King type scenearios will now play out much more often.

How come the recent abuse of illegal steroids in sports hasn't hardly registered in the media regarding the abuse of the same illegal drug by officers nation-wide.

The new era of media by citizens and blogges is sure to clean up our country !!

By the way, our little community of Casper, Wyoming is home to the nice little recent statistic of having more lawsuits for police brutality than all the other cities in Wyoming combined!! Not a single reporter will report on this!! UGLY EH ??

Posted by: Rob Chamberlin on July 13, 2005 08:30 AM

On 7/7 LONDON - I was driving thru' the area where the bus-bomb blast went off. I heard the blast but could not tell if it was close at hand - a small device; or a larger device a good distance off. I moved away from Tavistock Square, the scene of the bus-bomb blast and headed toward north London via Euston station. The pavements were unusually crowded so I assumed the bomb blast must have been inside Euston mainline railway station. Mobile phones were out [I susbequently discovered that a majority of available connections are handed over to the emergency services by the phone companies during such an emergency] - found a London red phone box and phoned my office who are located in Beckenham - a small Kentish town south east of London. They said 'go home' everyone is enroute homeward. Thousands got home on foot [or at least walked to the nearest available transport - which for central London was as far south as the Elephant and Castle. I continued north now hearing radio reports of complete gridlock and underground railway shutdown in central London. I headed out to the M25 [London's orbital motorway] and headed eastward towards the Dartford Bridge - made it home around mid afternoon. The initial reorts coming in of the bombings were sketchy and poor - the best info was coming from eyewitness members of the public who phoned in from the streets or sent text messages. BBC Radio London was hot on the case from the very first instant - they were brilliant. Their DJ just kept us informed relaying info from eyewitness accounts. Newspapers in my opinion are just there for journalists to waffle on after the event - the word news, as in newspaper, is seldom used by the English upper classes who always refer to newspapers as simply 'the papers'. The word 'paper' as in 'my paper' is becoming common useage here in UK...'in my paper it said' or, 'in The Times it said...' etc. News is now taken from bloggers and online news sources - BBC etc.

Thanks for thinking of us. London is used to this sort of thing - we had thirty years of bombings from the IRA. In WW2 about 30,000 of us were killed by the Nazi Luftwaffe. We will never surrender. London is almost back to normal and travelling around by tube [underground] is about 95 per cent capacity. By next week you'll hardly notice anything happened.
Someone in the Times [London] worked out that if the bombers [terrorists] continued their bombing campaign at their present level it would take them until AD 18,000 to kill us all - that's assuming the population remains static.

The bombers are on a hiding to nothing. Britain is not occupied by one single race but many and in London there are many more than possibly in the rest of the country. Those killed by the bombers were not all English but were of many different races.

Rgds Clive

Posted by: CLIVE on July 20, 2005 08:14 AM
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