Journalists’ identity as a barrier to tech adoption

As I mentioned last week, I’ll be speaking about the Future of Context at the Social Media Forum in Hamburg tomorrow. Bjoern Negelmann has been helping to frame the discussion ahead of the conference and, after our interview by email and blog, he’s posted a follow-up looking at possible evolution of Google’s Living Stories concept (in the original German and also in English via Google translate).

After outlining how he sees this working, Bjoern asks what’s standing in the way of the implementation of such a platform. As he points out, the technology exists. Why hasn’t anyone tried it? Part of the problem is that cash-strapped organisations aren’t prioritising this kind of work over other strategic goals. However, I also see other road blocks.

I responded:

You ask why such an approach hasn’t been implemented. The main reason is culture, and that is an issue not just for journalism but for many industries. New technologies often challenge not only existing roles but also existing organisational structures. That means that managers often assess new technology not in whether it delivers a better product or experience but whether it will undermine their authority.

Have you ever developed what you thought was an excellent social media strategy only to see it collapse due to lack of implementation by key managers? You can have the best technology and clear performance targets, and it still will fail without buy-in from key gatekeepers hidden within the organisation.

The other issue is really about professional identity. Journalists are very tribal, meaning that they have always been very sensitive about who is and isn’t a journalist. Economic uncertainty has only heightened this sensitivity. Many journalists still define themselves not only by their jobs but by very specific ways in which they do their jobs. Case in point, in the UK, a proper journalist must know shorthand or they aren’t a proper journalist. In the US, where I’m from, shorthand isn’t a requirement for journalism training. Although I can type faster than most people can do shorthand, I’m not really a proper journalist because I don’t know shorthand. It’s not difficult to implement technology in journalism organisations that doesn’t affect journalists’ roles, but it is devilishly difficult to implement technology that impacts how they do their jobs because it challenges their identity.


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