Where Does Social Media Start, and a Mainstream Media News Cycle Die?

By the time Jimmy Carter weighs in, with all due respect to the former President, home builder and Nobel Laureate, you can bet that's pretty much the end of the news cycle for that story.

When I watched Mr. Carter offer an opinion about South Carolina Congressman Joe Wilson the other day, his face as dour and reproachful as always, it just struck me that this had to be the last nail in the information surge coffin about Mr. Wilson's kinetic outburst and the chewed-over subject of growing societal incivility.

My former newspaper nostalgia tour partner at the New York Times, Maureen Dowd, also took it up in her column Tuesday, but she gets an extension because at least she's funny.

What's a little less clear and more interesting is the question of when and how a news story begins, and what the steps are in between that moment and Mr. Carter offering his final, funereal judgment.

The architecture of news cycles has changed dramatically, of course. These days, by the time traditional print and broadcast news outlets present stories of the day, they're more likely feeding back to us what we've already heard than they are giving us something brand new. The exceptions include investigative reporting, scoops or what we've vaguely called in the journalism biz, "enterprise" work -- now known as "unique content" when we want to try to charge people for it.

But general news, like "ideas and products and messages and behaviors, spread like viruses," says Malcolm Gladwell, the hip Christopher Columbus of modern trends.

In his book on big changes, The Tipping Point, Gladwell mirrors what's happened to our media consumption sequence. He says tectonic shifts are spurred by three different types of people (I'm bending his definitions a little here): mavens -- early adopters, who get the information first; connectors, who know tons of people and spread the information around; and salesmen -- persuasive and charismatic types who convince you things are authentic.

Now that every human being with an electronic device is a potential recorder of events, the early adopter mavens in news cycles slam information up on Twitter, Facebook status updates and other social media, dialed-in connectors spread it around, and salesmen give it credibility.

Covering the aftermath of the Iranian election was its own Tipping Point of social media as reporting trigger. The cycle spins from there.

Breaking stories like the Joe Wilson/Kanye meltdowns, the celebrity death marches of Jacko, Ted Kennedy, and Patrick Swayze, have all been scooped, spread, and confirmed before the MSM gets a chance

What's left for tradition? Too often it's dubious analysis and reheating of topics-as-trends, like the USA Today cover story on the Death of Civility. They know you know, but they want you to KNOW they know you know.

Still, in that last step there's room for a good Salesmen, and that's where the media dinos can come in. Gladwell himself cites the late ABC anchor Peter Jennings as a salesman example. 140 characters and web buzz don't give you the whole story and, fortunately for all of us, people are still ravenous for information.

The Most Trusted Man In America may be dead. But reliable, credible and even trusted news sources still exist -- places where you're more likely to land if you want context and accuracy. Sometimes that's the National Enquirer (John Edwards), but it can still be the more traditional journalism pros, online or print, start-up or established outlet.

One trick, however, is injecting that professional check and balance while people are still searching for it, not three days later.

And the real puzzle in the future of news, journalism and information, is figuring out how all this best fits together.

But it's not over til Jimmy Carter talks.