In the TV Age the tube has dominated breaking news. Watching crucial moments of a big dramatic story on TV can be compelling, and the TV news audience has dwarfed newspaper readership. It is accepted wisdom that TV owns the dramatic breaking story; newspapers bat cleanup.
But maybe not. Watch a big story on cable news and you’re in for acres of boring vamping and conjecture wrapped around the couple of minutes here and there that you really do want to see. And those dramatic couple of minutes are endlessly repeated until you’re tired of seeing them. Fact is, video is a linear medium that sometimes isn’t very efficient at advancing coverage of a story.
On the other hand, text – lowly text – may turn out to be more efficient. Text isn’t real-time. Its order can be rearranged on the fly by the reader. It can point to other things – video, photos, charts, diagrams, reference information. More important, it can be skimmed to quickly find only the pieces you’re looking for. With mobile devices, text can be transmitted by anyone, quickly and easily.
In the past week, the most compelling coverage of the protests in Iran hasn’t been on television, it’s been on the internet via Twitter. Thousands of people have been tweeting, reporting what they have seen and pointing readers to photos and video clips posted on YouTube.
Why more compelling? First, it has democratized the reporting, giving access to thousands of eye-witness reports from all over the country, rather than the accounts of a few correspondents who may not have the breadth of access that the thousands of volunteer eye-witnesses do. Perhaps just as important, the short texts are skimmable, and a number of websites have endeavored to collect and sort through the raw reports. Twitter and YouTube have made coverage that is customizeable by readers. No more Wolf Blitzer endlessly filling time while awaiting new developments.
A funny thing has happened on the way to the YouTube revolution: video everywhere has elevated the role of text. People want to watch video, but on their own terms and not in a linear stream decided by someone else. The easiest way to sort information isn’t by video, it’s by text. Why do people text one another rather than dial their phones and talk? Texts, in an odd way, seem easier.
In the next week or so, Google will release its Google Voice service, which will take your voice mails and convert them to text transcriptions which can be emailed to you. Why? Because voicemail can be clumsy; text takes the interaction online, where it can be controlled by the recipient. It might be easier to record a voice message, but reading that message is more efficient than dialing in to listen to a recording.
That is not to say that listening to someone’s voice – the tone, the inflection, the nuance – doesn’t provide more information than text. And text doesn’t convey the visual experience of video. But in the future, video and audio might be considered the drill-down rather than the headline, a curious flip of the media world we have recently known where TV has offered the raw immediacy and newspapers weigh in later to add the depth.