Digital shift means new relationship between journalists and consumers

Editor’s Comment: much more so than before there is a conversation with readers

Mon, Jul 14, 2014, 01:04

We are living in an unhinged age, where technology and the internet have broken up a long-established world order with some ferocity. The principal channels of communication and influence have changed within an amazingly short period.

The two-dimensional flow of information has been overridden by a multiplicity of channels and options to consume. Coinciding with this, 21st century life can be noisy and disruptive, especially where so many people are almost constantly switched on to a device. Behaviours – how consumers are interacting with media – give a telling indication of a sociological revolution.

The many positives in this empowering era are a flourishing of new forms of journalism and opportunities for engagement and exchange of views – not forgetting the internet’s capacity to be a force for democratisation of societies; to provide what former New York Times executive editor Bill Keller described as “the information you need to be an engaged citizen”.

Challenge

Technology, through the web, allows the reader to be informed, but also to challenge, to question and to intervene directly and quickly. Likewise the relationship between news provider and reader is different, and frequently deeper, because of the consumer’s ability to receive information and participate, and not merely send a letter to the editor to be considered for publication.

The negatives, however, are considerable: the avalanche of instant unverified information; an extraordinarily wide variety in the quality of sources – some remarkably prescient, some plain wrong, some malicious in their distortion of basic facts. And just as commentary can contribute to uplifting debate, it can also be toxic and unfair.

Within that cauldron, any media organisation committed to quality journalism must have robust verification to reinforce trust in what it does and to be accountable, The Irish Times included. That is particularly demanding when faced with less time to make decisions in the face of multiple deadlines and quick-fire news from competitors.

Likewise, what constitutes a story in journalistic terms now has many variants. Katharine Viner of the Guardian captured the new complexities well: “You start with an event or an idea and then you ask: what is the best way to tell this story? As an article? Or as a live blog, a list, a series of tweets, a video, some audio, a picture gallery, a data blog, a visualisation, an interactive, a panel of short blogs, a networked piece, an open thread where we publish one line and then open it up to the reader? Or something that begins with the reader? Or with the data? Or something aimed specifically at the user on mobile?”

Conversation

Much more often than before there is a conversation with readers and between readers, facilitated by social media networks. In many ways The Irish Times is in that space; in others we are at the beginning in establishing new digital relationships. The old “we will tell you the news” relationship is no longer enough.

The combined newspaper and digital readership of The Irish Times has never been larger or more diverse, but we are conscious that we have to serve that discerning audience in better ways in tune with their increasingly digital consumption patterns.

For all those in the news-generating business, notwithstanding the huge and growing range of sources, the guarantee of long-term viability that existed for most of the past 150 years is gone.

Likewise, journalism is under threat because selling news, or news next to ads, is not sufficient on its own anymore to ensure profitability and sustain the work of journalists in the longer term.

This turbulent backdrop was the prime motivation in commissioning our series on the future of journalism carried on this page over recent weeks, with contributions from within The Irish Times and beyond. Today we publish a selection of online comments in response to the series.

Profound impact

Despite great uncertainty, newspaper journalism retains the ability to have a profound impact, with ripples stretching into every digital platform and device. This is because it is a trusted and proven source of information, notwithstanding the ability of all media organisations to get a story wrong. It still rates better than most media in engaging an audience. But, critically, that alone is not sufficient to ensure survival.

How do you serve the “born on the internet” generation? How do you generate journalism for a sophisticated audience using more than one device at the same time? These are questions being asked of every media organisation, every journalist and every editor.

Trends are changing with breathtaking speed, as technology is in the ascendant and there’s no time to hang about to see how the marketplace might calm down, or to wait for the comfort of certainty returning with clarity on a new business model.

It’s daunting at one level, but an opportunity for those who make the cultural shift armed with distinctive journalism and a deep understanding of their audience.

Readers across all platforms are more informed than ever. And they still want fair and accurate news; the bulwark of journalism. So just as The Irish Times must embrace those new forms of digital story, differentiated for particular devices – notably mobile and tablet – it is striving to live up to the principles of good journalism as set out in the Articles of The Irish Times Trust.

George Brock described it aptly as “the systemic, independent attempt to establish the truth of events and issues that matter to society in a timely way”. The job brief of the journalist has broadened in many instances to become “truth-teller, sense-maker, explainer” as required.

And our collective output has to include agenda-setting news and commentary, where insight, witness and investigation are evident at its core, with a place there too for immersive, longer-reads relevant to peoples’ lives, and debate with critical, constructive and divergent comment.

The Irish Times seeks to inform on issues confronting our readers and society, but also to enrich through journalism marked by originality. It reflects modern life and, where appropriate, acts as a navigator through the frenzy of a digitised world. But ultimately, our quest is to serve our readers on any platform and to allow them to make up their own minds.

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