News agencies must evolve or face extinction

Imagine you’re a reporter and you suddenly witness a major news event occurring right before your eyes. Do you snap it to the wire, file a story to your website, or tweet it out to your followers? If you’re at the AP, you damn well better not choose the latter.

In a perfect world, you’d want to do all the above, though your employer is going to likely want you to do the first two before you tweet. Today, Reuters is a lot more than just a wire service. We’ve built — and are continuing to build — what we think is the world’s greatest news website, in the form of Reuters.com, and part of that is providing our readers with reliable and timely news, information, opinion and analysis.

An extension of that website is the information we post on our social media accounts, at Google+, Twitter and on Facebook. We’re not just reporting our own news there, but have become a beacon for all news, being as comprehensive as possible so readers come to us first for all they need to know. We’ve got things like Counterparties, created by Ryan McCarthy and Felix Salmon that does a great job at bringing news from around the web to our readers.

The wire is still a huge part of our business and always will be. However, acting in a way that handcuffs us from doing our best work on Reuters.com and on social networks, which help drive traffic and extend our brand, is writing a death sentence for us as a future media company. To bury our head in the sand and act like Twitter (and who knows what else comes into existence next month or five years from now?) isn’t increasingly becoming the source of what informs people in real-time is ridiculous.

In order to compete with these new and existing technologies, our wire will need to increasingly become better and faster, not only for our subscribers but for the reporters using it to file reports. The fact that it is easier to fire off a Tweet than it is to snap a wire report is unacceptable. Having a policy where you’re asked never to post something on Twitter before it goes out over the wire will put us at a competitive disadvantage, as other news organizations develop a reputation for being the first to report accurately all the news that matters. As my esteemed colleague Robert MacMillan points out: “in some cases, the tweet before the scoop might be the only way to beat your competitor if your competitor has no restrictions on tweeting,” and “when a news outlet tells a reporter, “don’t tweet first,” in some cases that means that news outlet has lost the edge.

The institutional brand building you create by having your journalists be great on social platforms cannot be underestimated. Part of having your journalists on these platforms is giving them the freedom to be a normal human being, not a robot, a PR machine or a slave to the wire. Do we want to serve the wire above all, since our paying customers deserve to get that information first? Yes, we do. But we can do that without sacrificing the incredible value we create by making ourselves a must-follow on all social networks because of the information we provide and two way conversations we can have with our readers. We can only do that if we’re not tied down by rules that ignore the reality of the present and the future of media.

Our direct competitors and two guys in a basement somewhere are already developing tools to be the next generation newsroom. If we’re not busy doing the same thing, we’re dead.

Fear, loathing and apathy of digital security

Is Facebook just an elaborate direct marketer’s masterwork? Should I think twice before using my existing Twitter account to log into various services all around the web? Should I be worried abouthanding my credit card over to Sony? These and other perfectly valid and  simultaneously conspiracy theoretical ideas tend to float in and around my head from time to time. The big scare du-jour, is if Apple’s iPhone and Google’s mobile OS, Android, are tracking and archiving our every movement.

A journalistic tennis match on this topic took place over the course of the last few days. First, this is old news. Apple responded to congress regarding this almost a year ago. Digital forensics specialists have known you could track locations on iOS devices for some time, and have used the data to assist law enforcement. Alex Levinson, an RIT student, even published a research paper and subsequent book last December detailing data acquisition techniques for iOS products, like the iPhone and iPad. He says that Apple is not collecting the data.

The Wall Street Journal added Google to the mix, citing that Apple is not alone in the practice of collecting user information. Julia Angwin at the Journal claims that not only are Apple and Google collecting the data and storing it locally on the phone, but they actually regularly transmit their locations back to Apple and Google. The endgame? Angwin believes they’re racing to build a massive database of location information in order to tap the $2.9 billion market for location-based services. Today, Apple seemed to indicate that was part of their plan, as they revealed they’re building a crowd-sourced traffic service.

Apple outright denies they’re collecting user locations.

“Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone,” the company said in a statement on Wednesday. “Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.”

In response to the outcry, Apple will release an update to store less information about location and discontinue backing it up entirely. Apple claims that the information they were receiving was anonymous and only stored the wifi hotspots and cell towers around the phone, which could be up to 100 miles away.

I’m as digitally paranoid as the next guy, but this seems like an odd case and strange timing. Why did something that was discovered months ago only recently receive greater attention? Will we see the same thing happen with the earlier reports about apps collecting and sharing demographic information?

Much like Facebook boycotts, we seem to get up in arms about our data being compromised, captured, leveraged, bought and sold, only to lose interest and go on about our lives. Most of us don’t really have the time to care or feel the convenience and novelty of these devices and websites outweigh the potential of being taken advantage of. That’s exactly what many companies in the business of buying and selling data and demographics are banking on.