Journalism 2017: Rethinking the newsroom

Above: It’s time to pick up the mic and define a new way of spreading the news. Photo by Mihajlo Maricic/DepositPhotos.

BitDepth#1103 for July 25, 2017

Let’s say it right up front. Modus operandi is killing modern journalism.

Journalism in T&T is still done the same way it was done ten years, even forty years ago, just with different gear.

A way of doing things can be ruthlessly sticky.

Journalists cover events and incidents to report what they find to the public. They listen to the authorities and question – with almost unparalleled timidity these days – what they are being told.

They are expected to fact-check, investigate and compare the realities of the island in which we live to the narratives and public relations that infest the public domain.

That information flows into newsrooms to be reviewed by phalanxes of informed editors, who reject reports that are incomplete or unbalanced for correction and rewriting.

Then this flood of material faces the winnowing of space and time, depending on the medium, with only the most polished and pithy of reporting coming to the attention of the public at large.

This is the model that journalism has followed for more than a hundred years in this country and in just one decade, it has been broken, perhaps forever.

In response, media managers have diminished the critical oversight capacity, and today’s editors are less trained and seasoned than ever before, many leaving for greener pastures just as they reach professional maturity.

Sub-editors and proofreaders, a critical final tier in the news review process are increasingly being replaced by software robots that don’t always understand the words they are processing.

No newspaper implementing these digital solutions has been immune to the errors that result, but one notable recent Newsday story had a full-stop. after. every. word. That prompted one Facebook wag to note that the paper had “pulled out all the stops” for that particular story.

The ultramodern Al Jazeera English newsroom may represent the exact opposite of what’s needed in T&T. Photo courtesy Al Jazeera. Click to enlarge.

These are the early days of machine journalism, which already sees online publications turning to automated solutions to create basic news stories.

These tools will get better with time, which puts one more hurdle into the Olympian obstacle course that practicing journalists will face in the decade to come.

I began talking to Lasana Liburd about his idea for Wired 868 when we both served on the executive of the Media Association of T&T.

Liburd had recently shuttered TnT Times, an early effort at an online news publication that had an impossibly large scope relative to its small team and kept producing on a schedule that tracked with traditional news. I agreed to talk if he agreed to embrace the possibilities of the digital medium.

We’ve spoken regularly ever since.

“When I started Wired868, it was stripped down and built to survive on very little finances which was not the case with the TnT Times,” Liburd said.

“Of course, the business model was different, but I suppose the fact that it was built to withstand tough financial times was probably the most important thing.”

Faced with the brazen harvesting of his sports stories by traditional media houses early in the life of Wired 868, Liburd’s instinct was to hold the stories until after broadcast.

We eventually agreed on a more 21st century tactic, to publish as early as possible and promote an exclusive all day long, effectively owning the story.

The tactic worked and media houses began acknowledging their source and eventually inviting Liburd to expand on his reporting on broadcasts.

The editor followed his heart in making satire an integral part of the product and that quirky choice worked too, because he really believed in what he was doing, and his audience responded to that sincerity.

“Readers,” he explained, “will hold you to international standards and not local ones as the internet means you are competing for attention with anything else they can access online.”

So what’s a media outlet to do?

Express Editor-in-Chief Omatie Lyder fretted in the paper’s 50th Anniversary commemorative publication that her young niece won’t read any of the papers she puts in front of her.

That’s an uncommonly frank and public acknowledgement of the essential problem facing all media houses today.

Successful media connectivity with the news consuming public must acknowledge that the strengths of the traditional media production model can and must be revisited to meet new reader, listener and viewer profiles.

News must evolve from publication and broadcast schedules to streaming newsfeeds that emphasise hyper-local coverage.

To unpack that, the idea of a defined publication or broadcast time needs to be abandoned in favour of recreating, with professional authority, the stream of information that a generation has come to expect from their media sources.

Reporting must move from comfortable chairs in the newsroom to shoeleather shed on regularly traveled beats delivering reports that pulse from every corner of the nation.

Journalism must move from observation to reporting to editor to public consumption in as near to real time as possible to reconnect the newsgathering process with its public.

There’s little point in publishing an authoritative report a day after the news has already been circulated through alternative channels, discussed and set aside. Spot journalism can’t be left to simmer, it’s got to be served with the heat of a roadside pie lifted steaming from hot oil, with all the flavour that implies.

Beyond that the media presence will be defined by informed opinion leadership.

Everyone has an opinion, and social media has given license to the airing of pretty much all of them. The perspectives that prove sticky remain those that are both colourful and considered, holding their authority in the face of review and dissection by their opposition.

The thinkers and analysts for the media house’s chosen beats will not come cheap, but their distinctive personalities will be necessary to defining the position, mission and agenda, the very character of news brands in the years to come.

Finally, reporting and delivery must be designed to be appropriate to the medium in which it appears.

Far too much of the news brought online by traditional media houses is simply shovelware, an imperfect dump of material that works well in the comfortable, well-carved modules of print, radio or television but takes little advantage of the essentially limitless space, hybrid multimedia possibilities and spatial dynamics of online publishing.

It’s telling that there is still, in 2017, no commitment in any local online newspaper to a robust slideshow or multimedia experience that leverages the work that their photographers and videographers talent gather every day.

Effective storytelling for modern journalism is moving forward at a blistering pace, but it all begins with newsrooms that gather, curate and publish information in synchronisation with audience expectations.

We are nowhere near that now.

  • Taran Rampersad

    I think we don’t talk enough about holding a story long enough so we get it right.

    In the race for the pleasing taste of the roadside delicacies, we should be wary of the nutrients.