FROM THE EDITOR | Dispatches from chaos in 140 characters or less

Teak Phillips |

Working for a weekly newspaper has its challenges, most have to do with time. One might assume that the pace at a weekly newspaper is 1/7th that of a daily, but it's just not the case. Some weeks feel more intense than they would at a daily, in part because we have a smaller staff.

But social media changes that. No real newspaper is just weekly or daily or whatever frequency any more. We're all instant.

Thank you, Twitter.

The chaos in Ferguson in the last couple of weeks has presented both great opportunities and challenges for a level field for all news media.

Reporters whose stories are usually heard only on morning and evening commutes now have national notoriety. Local newspaper photographers, whose bylines often don't get much notice, now have an international audience. Their near-stream-of-consciousness reporting and photos of the events as they developed helped bring the spotlight on #Ferguson, and make it one of the most active hashtags on Twitter.

Much of the Twitter journalism has been important in bringing awareness of the situation to the world. Live television feeds were good, but they provided just one or two vantage points. The dozens of mobile journalists (the cool term is MoJos) who were describing sights, sounds and smells almost instantly and from many viewpoints have, mostly, provided a good community service. It's painful to know that this is happening in our community, but it also has prompted much needed discussions about police policy and technique, race relations, and appropriate protection of the First Amendment rights of speech, assembly and press.

But social media coverage of this event also has challenged the understanding of journalism, "the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media," and journalist, "a person engaged in journalism; especially : a writer or editor for a news medium -- a writer who aims at a mass audience" (Merriam-Webster).

Some Twitter users have more followers than newspapers have subscribers. Antonio French, the St. Louis Alderman whose presence in Ferguson has been prolific, now has over 120,000 followers. Circulation of this paper is shy of 55,000. French's dispatches from Ferguson have been a combination of straight fact and nuanced activism, but he obviously is engaged in collecting news for presentation in the media. As much as it may trouble those of us in traditional media platforms, French meets the definition. He's as much a journalist as anyone I know and better than some.

A peculiar challenge of Twitter as a news medium is the lack of editing, and not just spelling and punctuation (Twitter has developed a language of its own). Good editors -- seasoned and particularly skilled at leadership and decision making -- are no longer selecting the best messages to include and they don't review and fact check content before it is published. This is very dangerous for the Fourth Estate, which long has held that "fact" is better than "first."

Take, for example, the tweet from @aterkel, Senior Political Reporter and Politics Managing Editor, HuffPost "Think these guys are part of the New Black Panthers. Best-dressed guys at the party. #Ferguson" she tweeted with a photo of young African-American men sharply dressed in tailored suits and bow ties.

You think? I always learned that readers really only care about what reporters know.

Not long after, she tweeted again: "Folks pointing out these guys from my earlier tweet are probably with Nation of Islam #Ferguson."

The tweeters are now the editors, and that makes me very uncomfortable.

Phillips is the director of publications for the Archdiocese of St. Louis.



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