Interrogating journalism: Asking how audiences are informed in the 21st Century

As journalists, we know how important it is to ask the right question in an interview. As we try to grapple with the disruptive forces that have been eroding the audience for print journalism, asking the right questions has never been more important. The questions, and the way that we frame the challenges that our industry faces, will determine whether many of our news organisations will survive. I was reminded of this when reading an incredibly insightful post by George Brock, a friend and the Head of Journalism at City University London. George took the recent report on innovation that the New York Times carried out and framed the challenge as much more fundamental than the authors of the report did.

The overwhelming impression given by the young guns of the NYT is that they don’t want to ask any question which might pose existential questions for their own institution. How do people learn about the world now? How does information really move and why? How do we use these flows to tell people what we think they should know? Does “journalism” have a role in this?

George is spot on. The questions have to be this probing.

Most legacy organisations understand that they need to change, to innovate, to do things that they currently aren’t do. However, what the New York Times report points to is that it is very difficult for traditional news organisations to get away from what they have traditionally done. Culture is fundamental to The Times, and it binds its staff together. However, culture can also bind news organisations to their past. The Times’ report talks about how dominant Page 1 thinking still is.

I have seen so many reports over the years that start down the innovation road, but they somehow get stuck in the gravity well of their own massive sense of the value of what they currently do and often how they currently do it. They cannot reach escape velocity to explore the new frontiers of how people are being informed in the 21st Century.

As Clay Christensen says, the jobs that our audiences need doing don’t change, but how they do those jobs does. What jobs are our audiences trying to get done, and how do we compete in doing those jobs?

George is asking an important question. Journalism has played a key role in informing people, but is journalism as we have practiced it the way that most people are now informed? If the question is no, what is the future for news organisations?

To serve your audience, stop feeding the goat

To transform, local news operations will have to fundamentally rethink what they do and what they stop doing. We know that we have to attract new audiences, deliver new services and find new ways to earn revenue to support this transformation. However, it is easy to feel like we’re drowning on a daily basis feeding the beast, or as the authors of a report from the Reporters’ Lab at Duke University put it, feeding the goat.

Nieman Lab summarised the report that looked at why local news operations weren’t innovating. The report found that local newsrooms felt that they had little time or resources “to try experimental reporting methods — especially data journalism”.

How to find time to innovate?

The local newsrooms that have made smart use of digital tools have leaders who are willing to make difficult trade-offs in their coverage. They prioritize stories that reveal the meaning and implications of the news over an overwhelming focus on chasing incremental developments. They also think of the work they can do with digital tools as ways to tell untold stories — not “bells and whistles.”

Amen. As my friend Adam Tinworth said in response to my recent post about building a community platform, it’s not about doing more with less but actually doing different things.

I am finding time to innovate because I am building partnerships with local institutions to add context and depth to our coverage. We aren’t just aggregating content, but more importantly, we are aggregating authentic voices in our communities. We are thinking about coverage thematically rather than focusing on incremental stories and engaging our communities in that coverage. Thematic series allow us to weave a deeper narrative that builds loyal audiences.

We will build this loyalty through a mix of technology and real engagement that goes far beyond simply sharing our stories through social media. The community platform strategy is about building a deeper relationship with our communities. We’ve taken the first step, and over the coming months, we will be doing much more not just at the two papers where I’m executive editor but at the 10 papers in the Gannett Wisconsin network.

In the coming months, I want to accelerate the changes I’m making, but to do that, I will have to think hard about what we stop doing. We simply do not have the resources to cover everything that we have in the past in the way that we did it in the past. We will cover how the local council is buying properties and selling them to developers who will add more apartments downtown for young professionals. However, I will do that in part by engaging young professionals to write, rather than simply having my staff write more stories.

Doing new things feels exciting, but the less exciting, more risky and yet absolutely essential thing I have to decide is what we stop doing. I don’t want to simply cut back, but to free up resources to do new things, I have to figure out what we stop doing. So far, the audience is responding to what we’re adding rather than noticing the things that we have scaled back on. Long may it continue, and I think it will because what we are doing feels like it has more impact, more depth so people are focusing on that rather than what we’re no doing anymore. I am also using technology to smartly import local events calendars from public institutions and then automatically reverse publishing into print with as little production as possible. More on that later.

I’ve got a meeting with my two news editors coming up where we talk about what we stop doing, what we can outsource to machines and what we do to partner with our communities.

I don’t have all of the answers. If you’re an editor, what are you deciding to stop doing? And just as importantly, what is that allowing you to do that you couldn’t before? I’d love to hear your ideas.