Digital has changed reporting

Jay Rosen has an interview with Washington Post ombudsman Patrick Pexton, who said in a recent column that the Post might be guilty of innovating too quickly, and as Jay highlights, Pexton says:

I am not a person who thinks the fundamentals of journalism have changed that much, despite social media. Of course it’s more conversational, engaging. And the online world has changed reporting somewhat, but not fundamentally.

I couldn’t disagree more. Certainly, there are reporting formats that haven’t changed much since the rise of digital. However, in saying ‘online’, Pexton is merely thinking of digital as the internet and thinking of the internet as nothing more than a publishing platform. I also think that he doesn’t see any change in reporting because he sees reporting as a fundamentally text-based project. Furthermore, reporting is part of the journalistic process, a very important part of it. It’s the raw material of story-telling, but digital has fundamentally changed how we tell stories. In short, he’s not thinking of digital as mobile or multimedia devices or services.

I’ve spent most of my career as a field journalist. I continued to report from the field as an editor at The Guardian, and I’ve seen a revolution in reporting in that time. Casting back to my first job at a local newspaper in the US, digital was already changing my job. I had a mobile phone then, although it was what we called in the US a bag phone. It had a simple modem, and we were testing how to use it to file. Our sports reporters used TRS-80 Model 100 portables to file stories from remote locations. Explain to me how that didn’t change reporting? This allowed reporters to remain in the field, report the story and file without having to read a story down the phone.

When I covered the 2000 US presidential elections for the BBC, we used satellite equipment and an small, inexpensive digital video camera to conduct live webcasts where we took questions from our readers around the world. Two years later, I covered the one-year anniversary of the 11 September 2001 attacks with colleagues. I shot video and edited it on my laptop, compressing it so I could file it over a modem to London. During the same assignment, I had an early mobile modem capable of a then blistering 128kbps, and I worked with my colleagues to cover the concert in Central Park. We took pictures with digital cameras, wrote the text and filed all from park before Billy Joel finished New York State of Mind. My colleagues told me that someday all journalists would work like this.

Then in 2008, my main reporting tool was my mobile phone. I used Twitter to bring readers along with me as I journeyed across the US with a Guardian Film team in the lead up to the election. I filed updates and pictures via Twitter. I could report and file pictures as people celebrated outside of the White House in the wee hours of the morning. It was a watershed moment for me. I didn’t have to leave the scene of story to keep reporting. Explain to me how that hasn’t changed reporting.

Beginning in November 2010, I began working with Al Jazeera, training hundreds of producers, correspondents and staff on how to use social, mobile and digital tools. Their work stands on its own as proof that digital has changed reporting.

Since 1996, I have worked as a digital journalist. I have never pushed change just for the sake of it but because that is where I knew my audience was going. They were going online. They were getting their news via social media and engaging directly with journalists and sources.

Many journalists have have been working to adapt to this change for a long time now. We’ve been fighting for a long time, and only recently, did I feel like the conversation was starting to move again. After a lot of innovation in the 1990s, we lost a lot of great young digital journalists to the dot.com crash. After rebuilding in the last decade, we sadly lost a lot of excellent digital veterans to the integration wars.

As former Sacramento Bee editor Melanie Sill said recently:

Most newspapers are stuck in the late 20th century formulas, scarcely varied across the country, for section concepts (even names) and types of coverage. These conventions, moreover, carry over into digital forms, and only in the past couple of years have we begun to see new forms made only for digital channels.

I can see green shoots again. Leaders are rising to meet the change rather than to rehash the tired arguments of the last 15 years. It’s heartening, and I’m starting to get the itch to get back into a newsroom after being independent.

I’ll agree with Pexton that we don’t pursue innovation just for the sake of change. As journalists, we pursue it because it can serve our audiences better, engage them more deeply and, with innovation on the business side too, generate revenue to support our journalism. In 2012, I’m looking for the next big challenge and for like minds to meet that challenge with.

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One Response

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  1. Aaron Bradley
    Aaron Bradley at |

    I couldn’t agree with your disagreement more. :)

    To expand on your well-made observation about Pexton seeing the Internet as “nothing more than a publishing platform,” I think that attitudes like Pexton’s summarize why the vast majority of print publications have failed to come to terms with the digital age and prosper in it. They’ve visualized (literally) the online world as simply another delivery mechanism for their copy, and an inferior one at that. Newsprint. WordPress site. Papyrus Scroll. Whatever!

    And it very much has, as you describe in detail, altered “reporting” as well as the product of that reporting. Aside from the many ways you describe in which digital deviates from “traditional” reporting, there’s the basic temporal divide between today’s publishing world and that of the traditional newspaper.

    While radio and television have long facilitated the immediate reporting of events, print was for a very long time the exclusive repository of accessible news (you could listen to news on the radio, but you couldn’t look up that report at the library). In the digital age print is out of date the moment it is published, with the web playing the role of a vast, accessible, indexable repository of information. That’s not to say that there isn’t a role for print, but the online world has changed that role not somewhat, but fundamentally.

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