General Media / ideas

The information sherpa: role for journalists on the web

(Image by Flickr user Sistak, used under Creative Commons license)

Following up on my post yesterday about information overload, I wanted to expand a little bit on a term I used: information sherpa. I first used a similar term “video sherpa” in a post for a Carnival of Journalism about the future of online video. I wrote:

Perhaps a new form of journalistic curator will arise – the video sherpa, a journalist who guides others through the mazes of videos on various platforms like YouTube andVimeo to find the nuggets of related content that are worthwhile, a la Andy Carvin‘sNPR tweets about the Middle East.

I should specify that I’m using the term “sherpa” in a specific sense. Wikipedia captures that essence here:

Sherpas were immeasurably valuable to early explorers of the Himalayan region, serving as guides at the extreme altitudes of the peaks and passes in the region. Today, the term is used casually to refer to almost any guide or porter hired for mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas. Sherpas are renowned in the international climbing and mountaineering community for their hardiness, expertise, and experience at high altitudes.

Another way of looking at our age instead of as “information overload” is to look at it as a mountain of information. News consumers who want to be informed, to stay on top of events that are important to them, need to find a way to scale that mountain. And they don’t always have the tools or experience to do so. That’s where a modern journalist can carve out an important role. The journalist as sherpa guides the info-mountaineer through the dizzying peaks and passes of the mountain of information, finding and presenting just the right information to help reach and stay on top of the mountain.

But I want to be clear about some things that are happening that are not what I mean by an information sherpa. The sherpa is not the mountaineer. The sherpa is not the mountain. The sherpa is not the treacherous weather that attacks the mountain suddenly. I’ll explain what I mean:

The sherpa is not the mountain: As I mentioned yesterday, there are too many sites on the internet that aren’t really providing high quality information. They’re posting intriguing photos and blurbs, or they’re posting barely disguised press releases, or hastily re-written information provided by quality news sources to juice page clicks. Those people are part of the mountain of information. They keep piling up the heights before the information consumer.

The sherpa is not the mountaineer: This is not the first time the sherpa has climbed the mountain. The sherpa knows a path through the mountain of B.S. masquerading as information, and is guiding the person who’s trying to make it up the mountain. More than ever, a journalist can’t be a generalist. Generalists get taken in by misinformation, slant, faux controversies and technical jargon meant to obscure rather than illuminate. A journalist needs to do everything possible to become fluent in whatever topic she is covering, learning who’s got an agenda, and when that agenda is shading the information she’s receiving. A sherpa doesn’t take the easiest path, but the best path.

The sherpa is not the weather: One of the most dangerous aspects of the ascent of Mt. Everest is the extreme and quickly changing weather, which can include high winds and sudden storms. In climbing a mountain of information, an info-mountaineer can experience frequent wild swings of information that can knock one off the path – useless information, sudden Twitter storms and Facebook outrages, breathless reporting about silly products and gossip about famous people. A true sherpa isn’t the weather. A journalist worth his salt doesn’t traffic in such chasing the weather. A sherpa stays the course, is aware of the weather, and knows to avoid its traps.

Many others have focused on the analogy of journalist as curator. But I think I prefer this analogy more. I would love to know what others think. I also think this new paradigm should influence how we train college journalists for the future.

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