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.