Considering journalism in a digital age

Above: Deborah Rayner delivered the keynote address, Journalism in the Digital Age. Photo by Mark Lyndersay. Click on images to enlarge.

BitDepth#1113 for October 03, 2017. An author-edited version of this column appeared in the T&T Guardian.

Five days ago, the T&T Guardian hosted a conference to contemplate and discuss the role of journalism today.

The event was held as part of the commemoration celebrations surrounding the 100th anniversary of the newspaper’s first publication in this country.

Accordingly, several first world journalistic notables were invited to T&T for the event, most presenting as part of panel discussions on selected facets of the problems facing the practice of journalism in an era hallmarked by the free distribution of information.

What happened was a mixed bag, as discussions meant to consider news consumption, the future of journalist practice, the monetising of the business and the challenges facing the practice were sidelined for more timely issues, such as fake news, the role of journalism in disasters and the blurring of information sources.

There seemed to be a lack of subject planning and role participation for the speakers and discussions. Couple that with woefully inadequate moderation of the panel discussions, which focused on rather feeble general questions about what a media house should do and failed to manage the conversational divergences that inevitably arise.

From the start, Deborah Rayner, Senior Vice-president of International Newsgathering, TV and Digital at CNN, set the tone for the event with a keynote hallmarked by brand chest thumping and vague explanations of the company’s digital strategies.

Panelists on the News Now discussion, from left, Shelly Dass, Adrian Van Klaveren, Davan Maharaj and Nic Newman. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

The first stake of significant value planted in the morning’s discussions came from Nic Newman, of the Reuters Institute for the study of Journalism, who participated in the News Now panel and reported on recent surveys of the state of journalism.

“Traditional media companies risk losing relevance unless they put digital at the heart of what they do,” he summarised at the close of his presentation, “and the smart phone is the key device of the digital age and must be the focus of the strategy.”

While television remains a valuable point of contact with audiences in Germany, in the US the Internet has overtaken broadcast television as the main way of getting news.

In one compelling graphic, essentially an inverted bell curve, Newman demonstrated the grim reality of the generational divide, showing the vast difference in consumption patterns between today’s digital natives who have grown up with social platforms and the generation that grew up with printed and broadcast news.

While social media growth is currently seen to be slowing or even dropping, 33 percent of those digital natives use social media as their main source of news.

WhatsApp has grown dramatically as a news resource, leading the messaging software that’s used this way, with 50 per cent of users reporting that they use it as a source of news. Only one third prefer to go directly to a news website.

“More people are getting information that’s selected by a machine through an algorithm than are getting it from an editor,” Newman said.

Computers are falling off as a way to access news and smartphones have risen to the meet the tipping point of that decline. Of these mobile readers, 46 per cent use it in bed, 32 per cent on the toilet.

In the actual consumption of news, stories told using text with photos and video embedded are overwhelmingly preferred to stories told using only video.

The next platforms that the Reuters Institute sees media moving to are voice driven devices such as the Echo. Four per cent of the audience in the US are using these devices and half of those are using them to access news.

“The advertising model is not going to support modern journalism,” Newman stated bluntly, “181 million people, a quarter of all users and half of all young users, are using ad blockers.”

Adrian Van Klaveren, Head of Strategic Change, BBC News and Current Affairs, has been working on the biggest expansion of that broadcaster’s public profile since the 1960’s and reported that “It’s very important to remember who you’re doing it for. To be an experimental platform you have to be willing to fail as well as to succeed.”

The BBC’s strategies have included extensive localisation of the news service’s content and a deep investment into penetrating mobile devices and extending its digital delivery.

“In the old world,” Newman said, “it was very clear what a news organisation was and they all looked like each other.”

“Those restrictions have been lifted, and we are going to see very different news organisations pursuing stories in different ways and they won’t look like each other.”

“You have to make choices; you can’t do everything. In a world of infinite possibilities, you have to be really clear about what you’re doing.”

“If you have a heritage, you have to deliver a product that is true to those values.”

The greatest challenge facing the T&T Guardian’s conference wasn’t in finding solutions to today’s digital problems; it was in defining the questions to be asked and harnessing the talent it imported to considering them.

Presenters and panelists always seem to rise to the expectations of their hosts and their audience, and the Journalism in the Digital Age conference kept things at a very comfortable level for the digitally uninitiated.

Indeed, the event itself was remorselessly analog. Every high tech event doesn’t need to have fancy graphics on big screens, but during the day there wasn’t a single word about the event on GML’s official social media or digital channels while the conference was in progress. No live Tweeting, no FB live, no Instagram stories, not even a post or two about the progress of discussions at the event.

It was a curious place to find the T&T Guardian, a newspaper that posted its first stories to the Internet in early 1996, three generations of web development ago.

The paper’s board of directors must have been pleased to get a primer on digital media at an event that would have been excellent in 2007, but it’s going to be hard to tease any kind of actionable plan out of the generalities that were the norm for the presentations.

In an era of readily available and affordable webinars, Poynter and Nieman Labs on the web, Skype-based personal coaching and vigorous discussion of these subjects pretty much everywhere, the conference needed to drill down into approaches that could be turned to T&T advantage and that didn’t happen.

Panelists on the Pitfalls and Profits discussion, from left, Davan Maharaj Pete Clifton and Wesley Gibbings. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

Pete Clifton, Editor-in-Chief at the Press Association (PA), spoke in dramatically 21st century terms about what his news agency is doing to provide service to its clients and to win more business.

The company’s Reporters and Data and Robots (RADAR) project is being funded by a grant of 706,000 euros from Google’s Digital News Initiative awarded last July.

PA intends to mine the datasets it has access to with a goal of generating 30,000 stories a month marrying data with reporting templates to generate hyperlocal news bursts.

The next steps for RADAR will be to develop automated graphics and animated video, built from data and improving its extraction of unstructured data on websites to create content. One example will be to turn Crown Court transcripts into news reports.

It has been training its journalists extensively in multimedia, working with 360 degree cameras and drones to capture images while reporting.

A recently implemented WordPress based distribution system is designed to make the content it supplies easier to find, embedding story and assets into the distribution platform.

PA hopes to leverage these changes to build its client base beyond media companies, with plans to sell its content and insight to more users.

And that’s what an action plan for change looks like.