Breaking news - in half

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The image is soft, colour-shifted and shot through a dirty ferry window. In the background, the pink-tinged New York skyline; in the foreground, dozens of passengers huddle on the slick wing of a U.S. Airways airplane as it sinks into the cold Hudson River. The photograph, one of the first broadcast from the remarkable crash site, was taken by Florida businessman Janis Krums, who just happened to have his iPhone handy.

Another image, equally soft, equally muted. From Toronto this time - the Israeli consulate. Seven women chant in a circle, refusing to end their occupation until Israeli leaves Gaza. The image was shot by Canadian activist Judy Rebick, who just happened to have her Blackberry and a connection to her email and Facebook account.

To Mumbai now, several weeks back, and a stream of short text messages sent by eye and ear witnesses to the terrorist attacks there. The messages strafed the microblogging service, Twitter. They alerted the world, and the world's news media, of what was to be a bloody storm of gunfire and shrapnel.

A far lesser moment now, thousands of rapidly-cooling homes blacked out in Toronto. And there, again, on Twitter; advice, news and good wishes gushing like ice water from the broken main that started it all.

Finally, to Washington, its Mall, as I write this, a carpet of jubilant Americans fresh from the inauguration of Barack Obama. In living rooms, huts and shops around the world, millions more share the moment and thousands of images on the photo site, Flickr - many in real time, many of television screens, of children watching those screens or of ordinary faces in the crowd.

What do these words and images have in common?

They're breaking news, sometimes broken first by ordinary citizens using the power of social media and cheap gadgets to change the news game. Sometimes just commentary, unfiltered, passionate and in-the-moment.

The words and images pour and spread not from expensive satellite phones, remote television vans or network studios. They came from ordinary hands holding disruptive technologies no larger than a bar of soap.

We have witnessed, in Mumbai; during coalition rallies; in dark, cold homes; at hopeful celebrations; and tense sit-ins the beginnings of real-time citizen coverage. We are bearing witness without the barriers of time, space or mediator. We are not waiting to be covered. We are doing it now, ourselves. And this is breaking news, as we know it, in half.

But, like any disruptive technology, live citizen coverage is sneaking up on the masters of the technology it supplants. I was recently at an American Press Institute event with senior editors and managers from the Toronto Sun, the Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. Most of them had not heard of Twitter and certainly had not used it.

We participated in a group exercise involving the coverage of a local, breaking news story. It was clear that many of the news folks did not really understand that using Twitter, citizens could send out their own reports, observations or speculations. They did not appreciate that coverage would converge, not on their home page, but around a spontaneous Twitter hashtag, or keyword, that could be easily searched and which would act as a focal point for all discussion of an event no matter who posted a message to Twitter.

They were unaware that, despite their expertise, experience and infrastructure, their centre no longer holds. They have lost, in a very real way, control of breaking news when that news breaks near those with the simple tools to extend their eyes, ears and minds.

They were unaware that an unstoppable force has been unleashed around them and has left them, in many ways, behind and just another voice in the crowd. How they use that voice, now that they are no longer the centre of attention, will define them.

How we use ours will do the same for us.

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