Rebuilding journalism through building a community platform

Shebpressteched

Last year, as my job search started to lead back to newspapers and back to community journalism, I started to think about the challenge and how I might meet it. When I wrote that blog post, I got a bit of pushback on Twitter about how stretched local newsrooms are. I knew that then, and now, I live that challenge. I wrote then:

After years of declining readership and revenues that have led to savage cuts, to say that local journalists are stretched thin is an understatement. They are stretched to breaking point.

Newspapers need to fight for new audiences and new revenue, and they must do that without new resources. As I said in my blog post last year:

When the cuts started, the talk was about ‘doing more with less’. It was about finding efficiencies and cutting out the duplication of effort, but after years of cuts, newsrooms now find themselves able to do less with much less. Editors have had to become a lot more creative on how they work with the staff they have left, with other resources if they are in a group, and with their communities.

When I landed in my new job as executive editor of two newspapers in Wisconsin, I had to prioritise what I would do, and to be honest, I didn’t think I would really be able to start my community platform strategy for months, possibly not until the autumn. But then my communities surprised me. Many people I met said they wanted more from the newspaper. I was honest with them and told them that they wanted the same thing I wanted, a vibrant newspaper. To achieve that, I told them I would need their help, and I was concrete on how they could help.

Since I started marrying social media and journalism way back in 2000, I have continually been surprised by how people and communities engage when you give them a specific thing to do. My communities have really responded, especially the schools.

As a new editor and very much new to my communities, I have made a point to meet leaders in my communities. As I met school leaders, they were very enthusiastic about the partnership that I wanted to create with them. I wanted to give students an opportunity to be heard in the newspaper, and I also wanted to give school leaders the opportunity to take their message directly to readers beyond a quote in a story. Yes, our reporters would report and write stories to put these contributions from students, teachers and school leaders in context, but we also had room to give people in our communities space to share their expertise and opinions.

I have to admit that the stars really aligned on this project. The head of a charter school in Sheboygan suggested that we do something about technology in education, due to a switchover from iPads to Chromebooks at high schools. My reporters were already working on a number of stories about new technology initiatives in local schools, and I had already arranged to visit some high school journalism and creative writing classes. This came together much faster than I had anticipated.

Across both of the newspapers, school administrators, college presidents, teachers, college faculty and students have contributed some 30 articles. What the students have written has exceeded all of my expectations – articulate, passionate and authentic. For instance, the social media editor of the high school news site at Sheboygan North wrote about how she tried to give up social media for Lent. We had another article in which students voiced their opinions about having their mobile phones seized by teachers. From the local charter high school, we had two passionate pieces arguing the pros and cons of technology in education.

More than that, my education reporters uncovered leads for future stories during the process, and I’m working hard to free up time for them to manage these partnerships directly.

This has been such a positive start that we’re now exploring other ways that we can partner with the community. Sheboygan is a real foodie city, with lots of local food traditions plus some stunning high end restaurants in downtown Sheboygan and at the resorts in Kohler. We’ll be launching a digital food hub with a blog and video series in the summer. We are also looking to launch a Community Champions discussion series in which we will give passionate advocates of our communities space to discuss how we help them achieve their full potential.

As I said when I started, I wanted our newspapers to be at the centre of the conversations in our communities, and with the momentum building around our community platform, we’re well on our way.

Journalism: Mining niches to support the mission

Jay Rosen ties together some of the trends happening right now in digital journalism, such as the launch of deep dive digital news sites. These sites are heading 180 degrees in the opposite direction of the generalist bundles like the newspaper and news channels.

When people entirely new to it ask me what’s the best way to get going in journalism — if you are starting as an outsider, with no credentials or experience — I always give the same advice, and I know other people give this advice too. It’s obvious enough. Start a niche news service on a subject some people care a lot about.

Niches can definitely be a winning strategy. In many ways, niche sites focused on revenue rich verticals have been working for much of the past decade – tech, sports, food, fashion. I think there are opportunities for traditional news organisations to build these types of verticals into a revenue stream rich enough to create a new form of support for public service journalism. This is part of my current strategy, looking for these verticals.

However, I want to add a caveat to Jay’s post, or amplify a caveat in his post. He writes:

These are a few of the simple virtues and basic lessons that a good niche blogger acquires by building a service from scratch. You don’t need permission to do it. Initial investment: less than $1000 for design, hosting. It’s a free country, a free press. And at first, you will probably be doing it for free.

I used to think that the radically lower cost of digital media would help traditional news organisations and indeed individual journalists outrun disruption. I was wrong. Cutting costs was part of the disruption not a strategy to survive it. The lower costs mean that there are lower barriers to entry to new competitors. To create a sustainable business in digital media, you don’t simply need to be cheap. You don’t simply need to grow your audience quickly. You also need to know from day one what your revenue strategy will be. If you don’t want to be doing your journalism for free forever, you need both an editorial plan and a business plan.

Digital disruption: Bigger audiences but lower revenues

This is the paradox of journalism in the digital age: Journalism organisations reach more people than was ever possible in the analogue age, but those larger audiences have not translated into higher revenues. Some of this has been almost constant pressure of digital ad revenues since the beginning of the financial crisis, driven by an oversupply of ad space. Digital media offer a dizzying array of choices for consumers and advertisers.

From the standpoint of journalism, like all industries facing the Innovator’s Dilemma, we scoffed at scrappy upstarts but not only editorial ones but more importantly commercial competitors for ad revenue that we didn’t even see as being in our business.

For an interesting view of this, take a look at this piece from The Conversation in Australia, a site that publishes comment on current issues by academics in Oz and the UK. Franco Papandrea writes:

The industry clearly underestimated the threat posed by the development of online competition. Although several newspapers moved early to establish an online presence, the initiatives were largely pursued to complement traditional activities rather than strategic actions to reposition their operations and bolster their competitiveness in the rapidly changing environment.

More recently, once the magnitude of the threat became evident, newspapers have scrambled to restructure in an effort to contain its impact. Their efforts so far have been concentrated in two broad areas: restructuring of publishing operations to re-align production costs with lower revenues; and seeking to convert their online readerships to earnings.

The increasing range of news and advertising services accessible on the internet is changing the relative comparative advantages of established media. The adjustment process is having a significant impact on established structures. The impact on newspapers has had both positive and negative implications.

He says we shouldn’t write off the incumbents, and he’s right. But in an age of disruption, incumbents strengths can quickly become their Achille’s heel as the market shifts.

Too much ‘I’, too little team thinking at legacy media for innovation?

It’s not news that digital technology is driving rapidly changing consumer behaviour, and while it took some time for that shift to affect the economics of the media, the disruption is now in full swing. While the metered paywall has given a number of legacy media companies breathing room, to use the bump in reader revenue as a base to build on rather than a temporary reprieve from the dust heap of history will take focused, innovative thinking.

I’ve been involved in journalism innovation since 1996, when I took my first job as an internet news editor. I’ve held pioneering positions at major news organisations such as the BBC and The Guardian. Both of those organisations can be innovative in ways that have proven difficult for other media organisations because they aren’t purely commercial. How do other news organisations keep pace with their audience and just as importantly create new revenue opportunities?

Charles Warner, part of the Forbes network teaches Media Management Program at The New School, was recently asked how to drive innovation at an “old-line media company, and he thinks it is down to the individualistic culture at legacy media organisations.

Finally, success in legacy media companies (newspapers, magazines, TV, and radio) is driven by individual success – stardom – not by collaborative team success. The internecine, hand-to-hand combat inside legacy media companies is about who gets the credit for a hit or success, not about innovation or team success.

I’ve seen this first hand, and I used to say to colleagues, “Our real competition isn’t down the hall but across town” at one of the other newspapers, broadcasters or now one of the digital news and media startups.

This isn’t unique to media companies. Office politics is pretty universal. One of the benefits of having done consulting both inside and outside the media industry is that I have realised that positive corporate culture is rare and needs a lot of work. In media, you’ve got a lot of creative people, and journalism is populated with professional sceptics who question everything, including management’s latest change strategy.

However, that doesn’t excuse just how frankly, effed up the culture is at a lot of news and media companies. In the past, when owning a media company was a licence to mint money, we could afford these poisonous, dysfunctional cultures. We can’t anymore, and besides, it’s a lot more satisfying to succeed as a team than fight amongst ourselves on the decks of sinking ships.

Advertising innovation is key to digital transformation at news organisations

When I heard that Canada’s La Presse had spent three years and $40m building its iPad app, my jaw dropped. It is one of the most expensive content development projects I have heard of, and my personal view is that such exorbitant development costs don’t make sense in the digital era. Of course, then I heard that La Presse wasn’t charging for its app or for the content, and I really couldn’t believe that this was a sane strategy.

I was not alone. Steve Faguy, a freelance journalist in Montreal, had much the same thoughts. However, Faguy landed an interview with Guy Crevier, the publisher of La Presse, about the project, and Crevier says that there is a method to their madness, a method which will very soon be tested.

Crevier says that he is very sceptical about the success of paid content strategies and believes that only a few large US and European papers with a vast offering of exclusive content, especially business content, will make paid content strategies work. Faguy quotes Crevier as comparing digital paid content to cancer treatments that merely delay the inevitable. This has led many newspapers to cut staff, which leads to a downward spiral of lower quality and lower readership.

Crevier also puts the $40m development costs in context:

“How much do you think it would cost me tomorrow morning to replace La Presse’s printing presses? It would cost me between $150 million and $200 million. And when I build a plant to print La Presse, I’m limited to 250,000 to 300,000 (copies) maximum. What does this money bring in future obligations? It brings me expenses of $100 million a year in paper, ink, trucks.”

Ok, that’s all fair enough for $40m is far cheaper than $300m. But how will the app generate enough revenue to pay for a staff of 200-plus journalists if the app and content are both free? The answer is premium ads. The app was designed to include special ad slots that La Presse hope they will be able to charge $16,000 for. In Faguy’s original critique of La Presse’s strategy, he highlighted a Radio Canada report that points out that this is much higher than other digital advertising in the Canadian market, and that the app doesn’t use standard digital ad formats so advertisers will need to do custom work to advertise in the app.

Raju Narisetti, Senior Vice President and Deputy Head of Strategy for the new News Corp, sounded a sceptical note on Twitter.

It is a bet-the-farm strategy, and one that requires that the app be a runaway success. I have to applaud La Presse in putting some thought and innovative effort into their future ad strategy. But will the audience be big enough and engagement be high enough to entice advertisers to pay the premium? We will have to see, but it will be a fascinating experiment.

La Presse’s experiment is just one of many now being run by different organisations, and this innovation, whether it is Buzzfeed’s native advertising play or Quartz’s novel in-stream advertising, is not only a good thing but an essential thing for the industry. Frédéric Filloux has an in-depth look at Quartz’s business/advertising model: it’s novel approach is bolstered by being in The Atlantic stable of print and digital publications, but the site has been able to attract very high value advertising. Filloux writes:

A year ago, the site started with four brands: Chevron, Boeing, Credit Suisse and Cadillac. Today, Quartz has more twenty advertisers from the same league. Unlike other multi-page websites, its one-scroll structure not only proposes a single format, but also re-creates scarcity.

The limited number of ad slots may create a cap for growth, but as he points out, Quartz is powering towards its break-even point ahead of schedule.

I’m a journalist, and I am thrilled to see a level of commercial innovation that we haven’t seen since the late 90s. I don’t think it will address all of the issues that journalism faces in the attention economy, but at least we’re starting to fight the good fight.

FT’s digital shift attempts to answer question: What does a newspaper do in the digital age?

The Financial Times has just announced a major shift that will see it move to single global print edition, deadlines driven by peak web viewing times and print stories that focus on context and added value of major stories of the day, according to The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade.

Roy said it appeared “to be the penultimate step towards becoming a digital-only publication”, and he quoted FT editor Lionel Barber as saying in a memo to staff:

The 1970s-style newspaper publishing process – making incremental changes to multiple editions through the night is dead. In future, our print product will derive from the web offering – not vice versa.

And Barber added:

journalists will publish stories to meet peak viewing times on the web rather than old print deadlines.

That doesn’t mean that the newspaper will be neglected or de-emphasised. Instead, it is a simple recognition that the format has to change to meet the needs of readers in a digital era. The paper will create pages that add context and value by helping make sense of “the most important issues of the day”.

Most newspaper organisations have not had the confidence to rethink print. They have focused their efforts on transforming digitally while doing little to change the print model. One leader, Clark Gilbert, president and CEO of Deseret News Publishing Co and Deseret Digital Media in the US, has been the leading proponent of a dual transformation that sees major changes at the ‘legacy’ print and broadcasting business as well as the creation of a new ‘disruptive’ digital business.

Between 2007 and 2010, the Deseret News saw their display advertising drop by 30 percent and their classified ad revenue collapse by 70 percent. Gilbert changes after joining the company in 2009 have stopped the death spiral. Digital revenue has grown by an average of 44 percent since 2010, but more than that, he grew print circulation, growing weekday circulation from 69,519 in 2011 to 91,638 in 2012 and Sunday circulation from 93,658 to 176,096, according to the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project. On Sundays, the company has begun to print a national edition.

This print transformation has been almost entirely overlooked by the industry. The newspaper industry in the US has lost $40bn in revenue since 2007, but it hasn’t rethought newspapers, says US journalism revolutionary Clark Gilbert. At the International Symposium of Online Journalism in Austin in April, he said:

In a post-disruptive world, why would anyone pick up a paper at all? There are answers for that, but if an organisation is not asking that question, there is no future for that organisation.

This question of the place of a newspaper in a digital world needs to be asked and answered by more industry leaders. To answer this question, Gilbert follows the advice of his former Harvard Business School colleague, Clayton Christensen, author of the Innovator’s Dilemma. In the Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen says that people have jobs that they want to do, and those jobs remain constant. What changes is how people do those jobs.

Like the FT, Gilbert believes that the newspaper of the future will have much more context and perspective. This isn’t opinion as much as it is analysis, content that makes sense of and explains events and information. This is content that relies on expertise and insight and moves the newspaper up the value chain; it will still be fresh the next morning after people know the breaking news from broadcast, digital and social media.

Print needs to change, and it is great to see that visionary leaders in the industry have the confidence to meet this challenge.

NPR head of apps: Mobile media doesn’t mean on the move anymore

In the UK, nearly half of the population uses a smartphone – that’s 60 percent of all mobile phone users – according to data from eMarketer. In the US, two-thirds of mobile users access the internet on their phones, according to a recent Pew poll, and mobile has nearly doubled the amount of time spent online. Across large parts of Africa and South Asia, the mobile phone is the only way that many people access the internet, according to research from browser maker Opera.

Research in the US from comScore and Jumptap showed that while mobile has doubled time spent online, in the sport and general news categories, 62 percent of time is still on desktop or laptop computers with 31 percent on tablet and only 7 percent on mobile. Josh Benton at Nieman Lab said:

The high desktop/laptop number makes sense — an awful lot of online news is consumed by deskbound office workers — but the tablet share has to be disappointing to all the news execs who bet the iPad would revive their business models.

This is why some news leaders, such as Digital First Media’s Steve Buttry, have long been arguing for a mobile first strategy. In 2009, Buttry said:

News organizations are belatedly, reluctantly and often awkwardly pursuing “web-first” strategies. As we fight these web battles, I am increasingly coming to believe that “web first” is what the military would call fighting the last war. News organizations need a mobile-first strategy.

The digital world never stops moving, and Steve, who I count as a friend, is right. We need to keep pace with the rapid shift in consumer preference.

IJNet has a great overview of a talk that NPR news app editor Brian Boyer gave about ‘mobile first’ at a recent Hacks/Hackers events in Buenos Aires.

Since the iPhone, people expect the internet to just work on their mobile devices, and Boyer believes that it is his job to make sure that their apps work for their audience. That makes sense, but catering to mobile users isn’t just about user experience, although that it is important.

Mobile first is more than making sure your content fits the smaller screen of a smartphone, but just as importantly, the strategy is more than being mobile, being on the move. As Jessica Weiss pointed out in IJNet:

According to Business Insider, 77 percent of people in the U.S. use mobile phones while lying in bed, 70 percent while watching TV, 65 percent while waiting and 41 percent in the bathroom.

Boyer said that mobile news is about filling the “cracks in the day”, the “in between moments” people have. That might be “before they go to work, while they are commuting or ‘in bed after children are asleep”.

A number of sites are now seeing an evening mini-spike in traffic as people take their tablets to bed. How are we serving those consumers? How many news organisations are developing evening tablet editions for these consumers? Would this be an attractive edition that would add subscribers to a bundled print-digital paid content strategy? How can news organisations use mobile notifications more effectively? There is a lot of opportunity here, and news organisations need to be prepared to move quickly with this rapidly changing market.

Listen to the dawn of data journalism: Univac, the first Nate Silver

In one of my data journalism presentations I look back at the history of data journalism, and one of the key dates is 4 November 1952: the first US election when a TV network, CBS, used a computer to analyse and predict the election results.

CBS used the room-sized, vacuum-tube powered Univac.  The idea came from Remington Rand, the makers of the Univac, because sales weren’t as strong as they wanted. In a creative bit of marketing, they approached CBS to use the computer to help analyse the election results. Of course, CBS also saw a marketing opportunity and mentioned Univac in their election coverage ads. Last night, in a lovely bit of luck, I heard one of those ads.

I often listen to old radio dramas while I’m making dinner and, much to my surprise, last night when I was listening to the 13 October 1952 episode of the western radio drama Gunsmoke on Old Valve Radio, I heard CBS run an advert touting how “Univac, the electric brain” would be assisting Edward Murrow and his team on election night coverage the following week. My jaw just dropped to hear this message announcing the dawn of computer-assisted reporting, as it was called in the US, 70 years before the term data journalism came into vogue. You can hear the ad yourself on Podbay.fm, and, if old western radio drama isn’t your cup of tea, fast forward to 13:43 to hear about how the CBS election team would be backed up by “Univac, the electric brain”.

For a lot of data journalists, the CBS-Univac partnership is a famous and well known bit of history, but if you aren’t familiar with the rest of the story, it is fascinating. Both Remington Rand, makers of the Univac, and CBS saw value in the arrangement, as Wired explained when they looked back at the day in 2010.

The eight-ton, walk-in computer was the size of a one-car garage and accessed by hinged metal doors. Univacs cost about $1 million apiece, the equivalent of more than $8 million in today’s money. The computer had thousands of vacuum tubes, which processed a then-astounding 10,000 operations per second. (Today’s top supercomputers are measured in petaflops, or quadrillions of operations per second.)

Remington Rand (now Unisys) approached CBS News in the summer of 1952 with the idea of using Univac to project the election returns. News chief Sig Mickelson and anchor Walter Cronkite were skeptical, but thought it might speed up the analysis somewhat and at least be entertaining to use an “electronic brain.”

They had no idea how quickly it would speed up analysis, and early on the evening with only about 5 percent, or 3.3 m of the total 61 m votes, counted Univac had a prediction. The Computer History Museum has the printout of a prediction the Univac team sent to CBS via teletype at 830 pm. “It’s awfully early, but I’ll go out on a limb.”

However, just as traditional political pundits heaped scorn on stats wizard Nate Silver in 2012, CBS’s editors were not willing to join the Univac team out on that limb. On air, CBS hedged:

In another story about the election by Ars Technica, we learn that the Univac team figured out that they had entered the New York results incorrectly, overstating Stevenson’s votes by a factor or 10. They ran the numbers again, but they got the same result. Univac predicted that Republican Dwight Eisenhower would win the Electoral College 438 to Stevenson’s 93 votes, and the computer set the odds of an Eisenhower win at 100-1.

As the night went on, Eisenhower gained momentum. The final vote was 442 to 89 to Eisenhower, and Univac’s early prediction was off by only one percent.

While I’ve known about this story for a while, it was great to hear the advert of CBS advertising how it was going to use an “electric brain”. I also learned something new about Univac. It was programmed by computer pioneer Grace Hopper. Her team fed the computer with statistics from previous elections, and she actually wrote the code that allowed Univac to make its prediction. Sadly, her contribution was not mentioned in reports at the time.

NewsRewired 2013: Three things driving QZ.com’s journalism

Quartz, the newest member of The Atlantic Media network, launched in 2012, but by July, it already had 5 m users and said that it had already passed The Economist’s web traffic in the US and would soon pass the Financial Times, and Jay Lauf, the publisher of the site, kicked off Journalism.co.uk’s News Rewired 2013 talking about the strategy behind the site’s success.

Lauf started by saying that digital media need to ask: Where does your audience come from? Do they come to you directly, via search or social?

Direct: 10 to 15 percent of traffic – While it is nice to think that people come straight to your homepage, he compared that to the fanciful idea that his young daughter comes to him every night as he eats dinner and asks for his advice, any nuggets of wisdom he might impart. It’s a nice idea, but as every parent knows, this isn’t reality. Similarly, journalists believe that their audience online are coming to them directly to learn the news of the day. Even on big sites like CNN and the New York Times, direct traffic is only 10 to 15 percent of traffic. That leaves 85 percent of your traffic off the table, Lauf said.

Search: 25 percent and stalled – A couple of years ago, the focus on was on SEO. It was the search game, a game of trying to “trick the robots, writing for machines not audiences”. He said that some journalists were encouraged to misspell the names of celebrities so that these sites could capture the 50 percent of traffic from people who commonly misspelt those celebs’ names. “That leads to a lot of questions. What does this mean for the quality and intellectual honesty of journalism?” Lauf asked, adding that it was a “waning game”

From a business standpoint, he said that search traffic referrals have “flat-lined” at about 25 percent, so a focus on SEO still leaves a lot of traffic.

Social – sharing and ‘dark social’ – However, the rest is coming via sharing, either through social and sharing networks – Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pininterest – or through ‘dark social’, simply sending links via IM or email.*

He said that we could all debate the value of the audience from these sources, but Lauf said that if a news site wasn’t winning with SYBAWs – smart, young and bored at work readers – they were dead. He said that media consumption had moved from pull (with the image of US newspaper sales box) to push (social media and mobile notifications).

Lauf summed up the new news consumer with the quote:

If the news is that important it will find me.

For Quartz, the question is how they get into these streams, these social streams that will SYBAWs are using to monitor news. They focus on three things:

Be visual “Embrace the fact that the web is a visual medium. Liberate content from the conventional constructions of the print world.”
What’s the thing? – Lauf said, that every story has a nugget, a data point, a new angle that gets to heart of something new and interesting. We love to share nuggets. “That doesn’t mean that story can’t widen, but think of headline first. Think of headline as a tweet. Will people share this? Will it travel?”
Radically simple, responsive design – They have created a radically simple site that looks clean on the desktop, the tablet and mobile. They don’t need separate tablet or mobile apps because the site looks good on all platforms, and it uses an infinite scroll. They didn’t clutter the site with a dizzying choice of 50 links when “people came to read only one story”, Lauf said.

They have also carried this radical simplicity to their ad strategy. Lauf said:

We rethought the way that we designed advertising. We wanted to avoid a Piccadilly Circus of drop-downs, pushovers and distractions.

The ads appear in Quartz’s news stream, much like ads now appear in the Facebook mobile news feed. They are labeled as sponsored content, and they are shaded subtly differently in the navigation.

They have 50 full-time staff, split almost evenly between business and administrative staff and editorial staff. Developers sit side-by-side with editors and journalists, he said.

In July, just ten months after launch, Quartz announced that it had 5 m users, and they claimed that they had already passed The Economist in terms of traffic in the US and was setting its sights on overtaking the Financial Times in the US. (A claim that the The Economist disputed saying that ComScore consistently under-reported their US traffic.) Quartz predicted just yesterday that it would be profitable by 2015.

Quartz might be based in the US, but it is obvious that it has global ambitions if for no other reason editor Kevin Delaney requires his journalists to speak fluently at least two languages. Of the site’s 50 or so full-time journalists and contributors, they speak 119 languages.

As the publisher, Lauf might be on the business side, but he ended on an inspirational vision for journalism. He said:

I started out as a journalist, a wide-eyed idealist, and I’m still a wide-eyed idealist. I still believe deeply what we’re doing on the business side is essential and important work. Intellectually, honest journalism is the underpinning for a democratic society. If we can figure out how to make this commercially valuable for hundreds of years to come, we all win.

Amen. With some of the long-standing tensions between the business and editorial sides of news organisations especially during this time of cuts and chaos in the industry, it is essential to hear business side leaders making the strong case that smart commercial thinking supports the mission of journalism. Business leaders in journalism are not all ‘bean counters’ obsessed with the short term. If we can solve the commercial problems and develop new revenue streams and rejuvenated business models, journalism, journalists, audiences and democracies all win.

* If you’re unfamiliar with the term dark social, Journalism.co.uk did a recent podcast on that. It’s called dark social because it is listed simply as ‘direct’ traffic from analytics services. This could be traffic from people directly typing in the URL, people sharing the link via IM or email or people using secure search.

Digital Journalism: Focus on the software not the hardware

Journalist and professor Carl Sessions Stepp celebrated the 50th anniversary of his first published story with a series looking at 50 lessons from his 50 years as a journalist in the American Journalism Review. In the final instalment of the series, he has a great call to action to revolutionise online content:

In many ways, we’re still in the hardware stage with digital journalism, still fixated on the tools. Journalists have lagged behind other entrepreneurs in imagining revolutionary content. Their momentum should accelerate into developing mind-boggling, irresistible, until-now-impossible information services for their readers. As we have already seen, if journalists don’t do this, others will.

In the past he says, progress in journalism relied on hardware, the platforms, from printing presses all the way through to the internet. Now, it is much more about software.

When Stepp says that we’re obsessed with the tools, I think he’s saying that we’ve been focused on platforms, and I think that is true. However, I have also seen enough digital techniques come and go that sometimes we become tools of our software tools too. How many editors are saying that they want their own Snowfall or Firestorm, their own immersive multimedia stories? Don’t get me wrong, I love immersive storytelling and some of the new techniques, but it’s always worth understanding which stories are appropriate for those techniques.

Fortunately, digital journalism has matured. When blogs were first popular, every journalist wanted a blog because a lot of them saw blogs as a short-cut to their own columns. They didn’t really see them as social media, just a digital incarnation of an existing format they understood. Now that digital has become a primary platform, rather than just another channel for distributing content originally crated for another platform, we’re seeing a lot more sophistication with digital storytelling.

That said, I know that Stepp is making a broader point, and one that I wholeheartedly agree with. It’s not just about telling stories in new ways. It is about delivering information and engagement in new ways. Although journalistic storytelling is my passion, I know that this is about thinking beyond stories to information services.

We are now seeing some great experiments in creating indispensable new information services. Mobile news service Circa is on to something. I’m not entirely convinced about breaking up stories in single screen swipes for mobile, but I think getting notifications about new developments on stories I would like to follow is something very interesting. Zite, which was acquired by CNN, is the first thing I open in the morning, and Watchup, the tablet app that lets me roll my own TV newscast, is my second.

All three of those groups are start-ups, but that doesn’t mean that traditional news organisations can’t create such innovative services. However, one of the hardest bits of software to manage in this process has been, and is, the culture of news organisations themselves. We already have a pretty good strategic template for rebooting a news organisation — the Newspaper Next project. Although few newspapers have followed the strategic advice that the project provided, we are seeing it in action with Clark Gilbert at the Deseret News where a core strategy is to develop print and digital separately. On a tactical level, we’re also seeing hack days and internal incubators. So companies are tackling some of these major cultural and organisational issues, but even Clark Gilbert is honest about the difficulty of this task.

I think it’s clear that we don’t have a choice but to do this hard work. Stepp is right if we journalists don’t do this, others will. But I know that journalists can and will do this.