By Ian Katz, Monday 14 March 2011
Andy Carvin is getting a little sick of talking about which verb best describes what he does. “It’s somewhere between reporting and collaborative network journalism, and George Plimpton-like oral history, except that I’m doing it in real time in 140 characters. I don’t know what to call that and I don’t care as long as people don’t waste my time trying to give it a name.”
Whatever Carvin’s particular brand of news gathering should be called, it has made him a must-read source on the Arab uprisings – and possibly the most talked about person at SXSW. “All roads now lead to Andy Carvin,” declared media critic Jeff Jarvis at a discussion on the future of news.
Ever since the start of the Tunisian uprising in December 2010, Carvin has been ignoring his day job as a strategist for National Public Radio and serving as a one-man broadcast channel-cum-newswire on events in the Middle East. A veteran of social media who used Twitter to factcheck the 2008 presidential election, he began retweeting testimonies, pictures and video from the protests in Tunisia – then Egypt and Libya.
Although Carvin had a network of blogger contacts in the region whom he used to check information being tweeted, what marks him out is his willingness to retweet unverified material and ask his followers for help to establish its accuracy. “I admit that I don’t know the answer to things and see users as potential experts and eyewitnesses. In some ways what I’m doing is not that different from a broadcast host doing a breaking live story with a producer in one ear, talking to pundits and all the while anchoring the coverage, but rather than producers I have followers.” …
But here’s an idea: Next time a natural disaster strikes, why couldn’t someone at NGM follow Andy’s lead? One staffer could take on the assignment — Dennis Dimick (Executive Editor, Environment), or Robert Kunzig (Senior Editor, Environment), or Jamie Schreeve (Executive Editor, Science). Or maybe Robert Michael Murray (NG VP for Social Media).
By crowdsourcing the coverage via Twitter and other social platforms, National Geographic could engage a sliver of its huge global audience — hundreds of millions of people strong — to create something new and valuable.
Otherwise, National Geographic and its dwindling staff will be forced to take superficial, unsatisfying swipes at major events like the Japanese tsunami, for which we’re posting a handful of photos from AFP/Getty, replaying old TV specials about tsunamis, and thus far doing little else. That’s sad, especially since covering natural disasters was once a National Geographic specialty.
Andy Carvin, and an increasing number of reporters who are not afraid of the people formerly known as the audience, are building new tools, new relationships, new communities, and a new kind of journalism.
So, too, can the National Geographic Society.
≡ Photo of Andy Carvin via mediasummit.org.