It turns out that we were not the only ones musing on the relationship between the news business and the flu business. Dr. Michael Osterholm, is the Director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy (CIDRAP), and also Editor-in-Chief of the CIDRAP Business Source, a subscription newsletter offered to the business community on pandemic (and similar) matters. Dr. Osterholm’s name has appeared here often, perhaps most memorably as the author of the “We’re screwed” observation. A couple of weeks before my recent post he had written to the business community:
The collapsing newspaper business is no doubt devastating for its shareholders and employees.
But what concerns me most is the = collateral=20 damage of newsprint’s free fall. The reliability of current news intelligence depends on who collects the information and how they interpret the events and conditions they are reporting. Old-style professionally trained = journalists who=20 have chalked up many miles on their beat-weary shoes, together with their seasoned editors, genuinely provide an information value-add that defies easy measurement or description in economic terms.
Particularly in this world of almost instantaneous global connections, I believe that the demise of old-style newspaper skills and service will mean for you the difference between having professionally investigated, vetted, and edited information versus some blogger’s opinion portrayed as being of equal value. In the business world, where timely and actionable information is often equated with money, what will you now do to compensate for that lost community and even global intelligence? (CIDRAP Business Source, January 22, 2009)
He then asks the same question we did: now who will bring us the news? Like us, he points to the internet as the obvious replacement and sounds the usual cautions about it: what kind of business model will sustain it, what about the reliability of the information, how can it replace the people that gathered the news? In addition to other planning needs, he observes, we need to take into account the deteriorating news business.
It’s not just flu, either. Like us, the peanut butter/salmonella tale has been on his mind, leading Dr. Osterholm wrote another Business Source column on the subject. It’s worth quoting (especially since it mentions us), since he explicitly mentions the role of blogs:
What is also clear is that I’m certainly not the only one worried about this dilemma. Ironically, even bloggers?whose commentary is free?are concerned about what’s happening to their sources of information, journalists whose salary depends upon a rapidly failing economic model.
Case in point: Just this week, a highly respected journalist with extraordinary expertise in infectious disease, particularly in the area of influenza, found herself at the heart of this very issue. I’m talking about Helen Branswell of the Canadian Press
Take a minute to read today’s entry by a writer who goes by the moniker “revere” for the blog Effect Measure.
When I read Helen’s comment, I knew I couldn’t describe the dilemma better.
Don’t get me wrong; we all need to be careful about how we use the sphere of blogs, owing to the unknown credibility of the authors. But Effect Measure is one I read every day. Responding to today’s entry, another credible source, “DemFromCT,” offers a link to today’s Time Magazine piece by Walter Isaacson, which I might point out is, ironically, available for free. It’s a must read, too.
I realize this column is a departure from my usual style. In a sense, I’m acting as an aggregator of content?and providing some context. I?m also validating DemFromCT and revere as good and reliable sources. I’ll continue to point out such sources in future columns?and continue to serve as an aggregator you can trust. (CIDRAP Business Source, February 5, 2009)
I have two reasons for using this pull quote from CIDRAP Business Source. The first is shameless self-promotion. If CIDRAP is giving us a nod, we’re not going to waste it. The more important reason is that it signals significant changes in the notion of “authority” in the age of the internet. While there is a lot of chaff on the internet, that is also true of traditional media. After all, these are the folks that brought us “yellow journalism,” tabloids, Fox News and the Iraq War, to name a few achievements. Many of their most important stories are completely unsourced (“reliable sources,” off the record comments, “a government spokesperson who spoke on conditions of anonymity”, etc.). At least bloggers mostly link to their original sources and their versions of what they say about them can be checked. Before the internet most of us were confined to just a few news sources. Now we have the opposite problem of too many. But in specialized areas, like flu news, readers who want and need to know what is happening have begun to develop a sense of what is reliable and what adds value, based on the numerous triangulations and cross checking between many different sources. Authority grows from the content, up, not from a name or a professional degree, down.
That’s an idealized picture, of course. Many people search the internet for self-validating information. Evidence is not that important to them. But many more people really want to know and are prepared, as is Dr. Osterholm, to use non-traditional sources when it makes sense to do so. In his case he has other reasons to trust us and DemFromCT beyond just what we write, but the fact that we are a daily read is indication that our content adds value, even for someone as knowledgeable as Michael Osterholm. It is a reciprocal relationship. We link often to CIDRAP because it is one of the most important sources in the infectious disease world. But they can’t be everywhere and see everything or have every relevant perspective. Like everyone else, they are actively combing the internet for a nugget here, a pearl there, the odd piece of information somewhere else. And he asks the business community if they have also made this step:
We’re in a transition to alternative media right now. The fact that the discussion about flu reporting and Helen’s response showed up in a blog and nowhere in the mainstream media sends a message that some reporting and critical analysis is already better in this alternative media sphere.
Know whether you have an information sentinel and distributor inside your company. I’m not talking about the person or team scanning newspapers or information services for mentions of your brand. I’m referring to someone who is monitoring nontraditional sources, looking for critical events and information, aggregating those findings, and sending reports to the right people in your organization.
We’re glad to be thought reliable. We know there are many sources on the internet who aren’t. The folks at CIDRAP are able to tell the difference. We aren’t seeking to be named authorities. We have our own professional lives and the recognition that goes with what we do there. Here, it’s about making public health ready and able to withstand a shock to the system like a flu pandemic. If we can help CIDRAP and many others do that, it’s enough for us.