Three 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 How sadly outdated it is today.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."