Readers, reporters, editors: you are in the digital zone

Print media must adapt to a new communications reality. There is nothing to fear in exploring this complex arena

“Strip away the modern accoutrements, and the production line involved in getting out a daily newspaper is essentially the same now as at the end of the 19th century.” Photograph: Getty Images

“Strip away the modern accoutrements, and the production line involved in getting out a daily newspaper is essentially the same now as at the end of the 19th century.” Photograph: Getty Images


It is no secret that the economic model which sustained print journalism is melting away. Sales of printed newspapers continue to plummet, with the money disappearing even faster than the readers. Across the European Union, newspaper revenues are dropping by more than 10 per cent per annum. Look around you at all those faces bent over touchscreens. Yes, some people are using their devices to read the digital versions of professional journalism, but print is still what pays those journalists’ wages, and revenues from digital, while growing, are failing to compensate for print’s inexorable decline.

Seen from one perspective, this is just a straightforward case of disruption of a traditional, long-established business model by innovative technological change. A range of questions which traditionally could only be solved by a newspaper –– where can I rent a flat? what was the score in the football match? what’s the movie like and what time is it on? – are now much more easily addressed via free, instantly accessible digital services.

Mass media organisations such as newspapers, magazines and broadcasters traditionally produced a broad range of content from entertainment to weather forecasts, book reviews to court reports, which made sense and cross-subsidised each other in the context of a print product, but which have now been “unbundled” by digital consumers who have the freedom to get their television listings in one place and their recipes in another.

The problem is that this unbundling threatens to leave journalism high and dry, unsupported by more lucrative revenue areas. A further problem is that journalists themselves may be so deeply immersed in the culture of print or of linear broadcasting that they fail to address the conceptual challenges and opportunities offered by digital media – not just its speed and immediacy, but its ability to dig deeper into a subject through the mining of data, the aggregation of multiple sources and the potential offered by calling on the expertise and reportage of an audience which used to be passive but now increasingly forms part of the story.

Witness and investigation

What is journalism and what is it for? In his recent book, Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age , George Brock defines it as “the systemic, independent attempt to establish the truth of events and issues that matter to society in a timely way”, and suggests it carries out that mission via four functions, “ verification, sense-making, witness and investigation”. How much of what we call journalism currently meets his definition is a moot point, but the challenge of using new digital tools to carry out that project is both invigorating and daunting.

A recent leaked internal report from the New York Times on the state of its own move to a digital future reveals deep and unresolved blockages in the culture and metabolism of an organisation widely regarded as the international standard- bearer for sustainable quality journalism. Even the New York Times, it seems, despite its digital talk, is having difficulties walking the digital walk, with online journalists still often regarded as second-class citizens and print continuing as the dominant force.

This should come as no surprise. Strip away the modern accoutrements, and the production line involved in getting out a daily newspaper is essentially the same now as at the end of the 19th century. In this old, linear world, editors commissioned or journalists pitched stories, pages were laid out and everyone expected them to be delivered within a timeframe appropriate to the print or broadcast production cycle. It’s a relatively simple but highly evolved ecosystem which allows for the publication by this newspaper, for example, of more than 100,000 words every day.

In the new world, everything is more complex; technology and content become interwoven, and new formats such as live blogs supplant traditional ones. Technical convergence sees newspapers now producing video and audio, while broadcasters generate articles and blogs for their digital platforms.

Paradoxically, although the digital world may appear more contingent and provisional than the old one pretended to be, it also has a far longer potential lifespan, and may be actively read for days, months or years following its publication. In the world of print, the moment of publication is an end point; in digital, it’s the start of something else, something new and unpredictable.

The explosion of blogging, social media and user-generated content inverts traditional relationships between journalist and audience, often to the dismay of the former. The tensions between old-school assumptions of editorial control and the participatory logic of interactive digital media are clear.

“Let’s start the conversation” may sound like a nice slogan at a marketing meeting, but can be a profound ethical and intellectual challenge for journalists and editors if they are to take it seriously. The logic of accountability and transparency inherent in digital discourse should in theory sit well with journalistic principles; that this is not always the case is telling.

Too often in the past, media organisations treated their digital publishing operations as an offshoot or an afterthought, shovelling newspaper articles online in an unsatisfactory manner, bolting a “breaking news” operation on to the side, and ignoring the fact that this was a different medium for a different audience with different requirements.

Now, to survive, they will have to experiment, innovate and move quickly in producing work to a much higher digital standard, redefining and re-equipping their journalism in a Darwinian race for survival of the fittest and the best.

Hugh Linehan is Digital Development Editor

Each Monday over the coming weeks we will focus on the changing face of journalism, looking at how the role of the journalist is evolving and readers’ expectations are changing as media organisations shift attention to digital innovation

The ‘Times Present’ Monday pictures will resume next week

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