Digital labs are re-inventing journalism on the run

Can you handle the digital revolution? www.shutterstock.com

It was something of a moment in the evolution of news in this country. Last week, while we were still digesting the revelation that The Independent, which had been acquired by its current owner for just £1, was once more looking for a buyer, we heard The Daily Telegraph had sacked its editor – an old-style newsman – and then on the same day, The Guardian Media Group had sold off its remaining stake in its cash cow Auto Trader to help keep its operation afloat.

Three “quality” newspapers with illustrious track records, all facing up, in their own way, to the challenges presented by the digital revolution – which has turned the news industry on its head.

For the past 15 years, an argument has been reverberating in and around journalism. The digital era, argued one school of thought, is a total re-set: nothing will – or can – survive of the old news media dominated by print and terrestrial broadcast. Rubbish, argued the other school: digital journalism can’t do original reporting and when the world clocks that fraud, mainstream media will revive.

I parody the opposing positions, but not by much. The quarrel was static and often sterile. I’ve argued (here and here) that the task of journalists in the digital era is to adapt old values and ideals to new circumstances and possibilities. In other words, a lot needs to change to renew an old ideal: telling people useful truth.

This stale dispute from the past is now being rendered irrelevant by new online news businesses which have the experimental drive, technological confidence and resources to try new ways of doing things – and which have already won a sizeable audience to try them on.

Shock of the new

Experiments small and large with everything from how long the ideal list should be to the ideal width for pictures to the right tone for long-form reporting are conducted on the run, at speed and with a wealth of data about what is shared and how much. Failed experiments are dumped and forgotten. Online sites are not inhibited by caution about their reputation; they have won millions of users but not yet prestige and respect. Such sites are run as laboratories for the next news.

This does not mean that each of these experiments will succeed – by definition, the majority don’t – and it does not mean that any business pumped full of cash by over-excitable venture capital firms will succeed. Some will flame out or fizzle out.

But the readiness of young digital consumers of news to look at what companies such as Vox and Buzzfeed are doing is accelerating the rate of experiment and discovery.

The traditional way of reporting a major international story, such as the increasingly violent protests in Ukraine, would be with words (for print) or in reportage led by a questing reporter on radio or television. The print version might be accompanied by still picture or two. Words traditionally dominated pictures because they could convey more complex ideas – and space for pictures was short.

But in the digital age, words and pictures can be both transmitted at low cost and at the same speed; the space constraint has gone. So Buzzfeed tried telling the story of one recent day in pictures. There were more than 30 images, four or five were video clips. Each had at least a two or three line caption. Although delivered in fragments, the total word count for that day’s despatch would have added up to as many words (between 600 and 800) as a newspaper foreign correspondent would expect to land on a page.

This wouldn’t be the ideal way to tell any story, but it was quite a good way to tell this particular day in Kiev. Because it was on Buzzfeed, you can suppose that the editor-geeks there will be looking at user-generated data to see what number of pictures plays best. Do readers get bored after 25? Or do they prefer more depth at around 30 or even 40 images? There will be data to provide clues. (For more on Buzzfeed’s philosophy, science and speed of growth, see here).

The presentation or organisation of news gets turned upside down like this at intervals. The driver of change is usually technology opening new opportunities or the readers and viewers getting fed up with what they see as mannered, formal or simply un-illuminating ways of producing news. Those ways of doing news haven’t been rethought because no one is paying enough attention to readers – and particularly to young readers – as they adjust to digital news.

To repeat: not all these new attempts will work. Will Vice TV’s energetic and quirky reporters actually judge the situation they report correctly? Perhaps, but quite possibly naivety will undermine them. Will Ezra Klein’s new site for giving context to the news backed by Vox Media find a business model even if his intentions are good?

But failures won’t obscure the fact that these new players are starting to make the weather. David Carr of the New York Times caught this very well in a column at the weekend:

More and more, it’s becoming apparent that digital publishing is its own thing, not an additional platform for established news companies. They can buy their way into it, but their historical advantages are often offset by legacy costs and bureaucracy.

Carr quotes Henry Blodget of Business Insider:

Digital journalism is as different from print and TV journalism as print and TV are from each other … Few people expect great print news organizations to also win in TV. Similarly, few should expect great TV or print organizations to win in digital. The news-gathering, storytelling and distribution approaches are just very different.

The clearer this becomes, the tougher the strains on established media trying to manage both print and digital in the right combination. The Guardian’s sale of its lucrative Auto Trader stake raised enough, we’re told, to soak up its losses for almost 20 years. The Daily Telegraph’s abrupt dismissal of Tony Gallagher leaves the editorial operation now effectively run by someone from a digital tradition. The Independent has lost circulation and revenue for as long as anyone can remember.

All these papers have extensive online operations. But despite their advantages of accumulated reputation and wisdom, they find the agility and experimental inventiveness of their new rivals hard to match.

This article is an edited version of a blog post that first appeared on georgebrock.net.