Last week began in the Boston area with reenactments of bloody battles fought 238 years ago. I got there at 5 a.m. for one of them, standing with my family near the edge of Lexington Green as dawn broke and then, a little while later, a guy on horseback (presumably supposed to be Paul Revere, although in reality he'd lost his horse by then) rode past us to Buckman Tavern to warn the gathered patriots that the British Army was not far behind.
It was a surprisingly affecting moment. One got at least a faint sense of how eerie, and terrifying, it must have been for the local farmers and tradesmen waiting in that tavern in the dark. And when the sound of British drums and fifes started wafting up Massachusetts Avenue, it carried real menace. A heavily armed professional force was marching up the road to confront a bunch of amateurs.
The professional soldiers beat the amateurs in that first skirmish on Lexington Green, but they lost the day. By the time British got to Concord, where they were supposed to locate and capture a stash of military supplies (which had been moved by then anyway), the local minutemen had mustered a force big enough to turn the army back. And as the British retreated back to Charlestown they were harassed all the way by an enemy seemingly lurking in every house and behind every bush.
The amateurs won the war too, although it took a few years and by then they weren't all amateurs anymore. There were more of them, and they knew the territory better.
The U.S. armed forces and government have of course since grown into massive, professional organizations. Then again, Lexington and Concord at least are still governed by town meetings, and the amateur roots of the American Revolution still inform political debate and shape civic life across the country.
Which brings us (sort of) to the rest of what happened last week. On the afternoon of the battle reenactments, a pair of young men whose place on the amateur-professional continuum has yet to be definitively determined (I'm guessing pretty amateur, but really, who knows) set off deadly homemade bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. I was working at home and distractedly looking at Twitter when I first saw reports of the explosions, well before the news was on TV or radio. It didn't take long, in fact, for an exasperated line of chatter to develop in my Twitter stream berating CNN and the other cable news networks for not having switched over yet to marathon news.
My immediate concerns centered around the marathon runner who had spent the previous night at our house. Before long Twitter had pointed me to the Boston Athletic Association site, where I was able to discover that my friend had crossed the finish line just over 10 minutes before the bombs went off, and thus was almost certainly okay (indeed he was). After that I became a mostly passive, if unnervingly close-by, observer of Boston's — and the American news media's — strange, scary week.
Most of the strangeness had to do with the events themselves (bombs go off at marathon, well-liked local kid turns out to be apparent terrorist, major American city shuts down as police hunt him down) but the communications revolution of the recent years meant that we experienced the events in an unfamiliar way, too. The internet, and especially social media, have elevated amateurs, giving all of us the opportunity both to report and spread news ourselves and to consume it in largely unfiltered fashion. This in turn has put pressure both on government authorities and established media to react to what's going on online, by turns by debunking it and passing it on.
I'm really not sure what this is going to mean for the relationship between citizens and government. New communication tools and technologies may enable the occasional "Facebook revolution," but they also allow for government surveillance and monitoring of previously unimaginable scope.
For the news media, though, economics are dictating what appears to be a permanent shift in the professionals-to-amateurs balance. Lots of businesses are being affected by changes in how they communicate with their customers. But for those in the business of communicating, it's been especially dramatic — and devastating. Newspaper ad revenues in the U.S. have, after you adjust for inflation, fallen to levels last seen in the mid-1950s. As Nicco Mele and John Wihbey wrote earlier this month:
At about the time the Berlin Wall fell, there were roughly 56,000 editorial jobs among American newsrooms. That number is now likely below 40,000, according to Pew, and one can imagine it falling further.
So it's not just that the amateurs are newly empowered. There are also ever-fewer professionals, with fewer resources at their disposal. Mele and Wihbey described this decline in the context of a proposal for how to keep the number of pros from dropping below 30,000. Let's hope somebody figures that out — beyond the obvious self-interest involved, I do happen to believe that professional newsgathering has a lot of societal value. But the amateurs aren't going away, and we pros shouldn't want them to. We need all the help we can get.
In the last few days, a lot has been written about the failings of either the professionals or the amateurs in Boston, and both sides have plenty examples to point to. There were lots of media pros repeating nonsense on the air, while on on Twitter amateurs and pros joined forces to disseminate the names of two suspects who were not in fact suspects. There were also plenty of professionals — and amateurs — getting it right. Even in the case of the much-maligned reddit, if Ryan Sholin's account is to be believed, amateur moderators were furiously trying to stamp out errors and misinformation last week.
I'm pretty sure Sholin's account is to be believed, actually. Not because he works at Gannett, a newspaper publisher, but because I've been following him on Twitter for a couple of years and have never found him to be a purveyor of nonsense. Which is sort of the way things are headed. We all have to make our own decisions on who or what to trust.
The difficulty, of course, is that most of us don't have the experience, the judgment, or, really, the time to make informed, rational assessments of everything we see and read. I think I'm reasonably sophisticated at sorting through the news, and I'm definitely experienced at it, but for a while there Friday morning I got totally sucked in by, although happily didn't retweet, incorrect reports on Twitter (presumably from scanner chatter) that police had Dzokhar Tsarnaev surrounded in a house in Watertown. It's almost over, I thought. But it wasn't. Reading Twitter last Friday was, as Felix Salmon put it, "an exercise in massively multivariate real-time Bayesian analysis."
Still, I stuck with Twitter as my primary news filter, and I got better at sifting wheat from chaff as time went by. The array of information — from descriptions of what Pete Williams was saying on NBC to links to the best new articles in the Boston Globe or New York Times to speculations about what was really happening in Watertown as the day wore on to reports from co-workers of loud bangs down the street — was simply greater and delivered in more timely fashion than one could get from any other one source. Yes, some percentage of it was misinformation, but the media were publishing and broadcasting errors long before the social media age. What's different now is the speed at which error can be disseminated and the fact that anybody can disseminate it. But bad information can also be debunked more quickly, and debunked by anyone.
Sorting through the noise and getting stories straight should continue to be a way for media professionals to add real value. It may even help their employers stay in business.The professionals won't be able to do it in a vacuum, though, and they shouldn't want to. The media have gone pro-am. This brings all sorts of complications with it, but the amateurs can also provide essential reinforcement to the professional media's dwindling ranks. There are more of them, and they often know the territory better. I'd rather have them on my side than fight against them.