Changing News and Journalism in the Digital Era (2022)
These research notes summarize the interviews conducted with journalists in the US about the changing nature and forms of journalism.
The influence of technology on journalism has been discussed by considering different levels. For example, Pavlik and Bridges (2013) list these as transformation of working practices and routines; changing business practices and models of organizations; changing the relationship with their publics; and challenging notions and models of news and media content and storytelling. My research notes focus on the third and especially the fourth level and ask what journalists think about the changing form and content of news as well as how they evaluate the future of education and training of journalism. The notes are the outcome of face-to-face interviews in Boston and Cambridge in 2014 and 2015 during my visit at MIT, as well as interviews through LinkedIn. Telephone and Skype were used to reach others outside the city or region.
Changing journalism, news and ‘readership’
The journalists I interviewed agreed that journalism is going through a big transition. It will not die, but it will survive in the blurring of differing formats. Writing is still essential along with editing, photography and video. Also, an understanding of statistics and big data sets is important, and these challenges are considered productive for more investigative reporting and deep and engaging stories (R.N., AP) and for creating an open-source community.
The Boston Globe reporters who were interviewed gave interactive news pieces as examples from the online Boston Globe. According to them, these media platforms allowed readers different options of reading and engagement. Users can choose which videos they would like to watch (D.Z.), and that can inspire them to burrow beneath the surface of an issue or topic (M.P.). Most journalists agree that these changes are not at the expense of reading as even more elaborate forms of reading are possible with these new formats. Mobile applications customize the content differently for the audience. Through reading and navigating, ‘they build their own narratives; explore their own ways’ (D.Z.).
I think there are many interesting possibilities for interactive storytelling [we can] use these new technologies to engage readers who have become disengaged and uninterested in political life in new ways. (T.D., Oakland Tribune).
Readers sending videos or information to the news organization are welcomed with caution by journalists. They state that it is easy to be misled by such material, intentionally or unintentionally. These materials can be powerful sources of information, but they need to be filtered by professional journalists (as mentioned by BD, DZ, MC) because ‘journalism is more than recording what you see’:
I believe that people in the community can be very useful in documenting demonstrations, crimes in progress, and all other sorts of events where journalists are not present. But journalism is about more than just recording what you see. It should involve interpreting those events in a way that gives meaning to the audience (T.D., Oakland Tribune).
Comparisons with the ideal of quality journalism not only sound a note of caution on readers’ or citizens’ productions but also on other participatory forms:
Participatory projects are not all the same. Some engage members of the community in ways that bring greater depth and context to reporting issues. Others I believe are not very professionally done and don’t add much to the public dialogue. (T.D., Oakland Tribune).
This caution is also valid in the use of social media as news sources. One AP journalist pointed out the importance of it in the use of Twitter as a news source, referring to the importance of credibility and verification. You have to call the person to confirm and get more information (R.N., AP). Another participant from AP also confirmed that:
Skills are helpful. But the technical needs will change. So, focus on basics. Values and standards […] Where does reliable information come from and how do we obtain it? What does it mean to be fair, open minded and free of bias? […] Forms of journalism are always changing. The inverted pyramid style of newspaper writing was invented to fill a need created by the technology that produced mass circulation newspapers in the early twentieth century. It is crucial that journalists understand the difference between forms of journalism, which can change, and basic values, which should not. (M.O., AP)
The fact that ‘good journalism is good journalism, regardless of platform or technology used’ is agreed upon by the journalists being interviewed:
I don't see a problem with interactive and documentary forms − if done well. The issue here, though, is quality. We didn't just throw together some video to check off the multimedia box, we put a lot of effort into presenting the same depth of research in a different form, something now rarely seen in local television news. We also called our shots − not all information presents well in video or interactive graphics. Sometimes words work just fine. Knowing when to use what tool is important. Bottom line is, good journalism is good journalism, regardless of platform or technology used. (J.W., Las Vegas Review)
According to journalists, the story should determine the forms to be used:
The fundamentals of reporting and writing are still critical. Not every story needs this treatment. It should be limited to cases in which it really enhances a specific project or story. (A.S., St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
I think the forms should be determined by the stories themselves. Thus, some stories are better told in interactive ways (and it could be as simple as a chart or map with gas prices). The artistic, documentary and even ‘snowfall’-type rich-media stories have just appeared in recent years, thanks in part to the technological advances in web development, so there will be more of them − and, yes, a lot of them are not deserving of this treatment. At the end of the day, it’s the story that determines how it should be presented. Some of them will benefit from this treatment. Most do not (On a side note, I have to admit I am a fan of the form and have crafted some myself). (I.L., Digital First Media)
Some journalists criticized some of the current interactive work for prioritizing form over content:
I think too much attention is being paid to form and not nearly enough to content! (R.C, CNL)
I'm in my 42nd year of working in a newsroom. My thought about journalism right now is that it's lost its way. Are we telling stories to amaze and astound, or are we trying to get out the news that people need to run their affairs and take part in our democratic republic? (B.C., The Columbus Dispatch)
The form of our stories should always be in service to the stories we tell − and the experience we want our readers to go through. People argue a lot about this, but this is a simple design question: What are we trying to accomplish − and what type of experience best helps us accomplish this goal? (A.C., Connecticut Mirror)
But I fear many are ignoring the foundation of journalism − verified reporting and clean, engaging, authoritative and accurate writing. To me, that is what ultimately is attractive to readers − stories free of clutter and full of information presented in compelling fashion. (M.P., Boston Globe)
Future of Journalism and Education
Journalism's transition into the digital era brings challenges and extra work for journalists:
They should know and understand data and visualize that. It is not easy to do coding. (M.C., Fortune)
Journalists then develop their skills, acquire new skills:
There is this new skill set. People do have programming language and use that in data visualization especially in large data mapping data and finding a pattern. That is a specialization that did not exist 5 years ago. (D.Z., Boston Globe)
Journalism schools and journalism interact and co-operate with each other. The basic and the oldest type of interaction is that journalists are invited into the classroom or to teach some courses in journalism schools, as mentioned by the Boston Globe editors and journalists during the interviews. The importance of learning by doing was emphasized by the journalists being interviewed. For example,
Personally, I didn’t go to journalism school myself. I was an English major and studied literature [...] and I learned at the student’s newspaper, like a lot of people do at college. […] you can be a great journalist without going to journalism school. I believe you can be a great journalist by learning on the job. (J.Y., The Chronicle of Higher Education)
In general, many acknowledged the fact that technology is affecting the media industry and the newspapers as well as journalism schools. At the same time, they underlined the importance of the core values of journalism. Some say: ‘teach the craft, tools come later, teach what a news story is, how to interview people, research how to get information, then they can figure out how to use the tools.’
I'd like to see less teaching on the technology and more attention to critical thinking skills and depth of knowledge in specialized areas. Technology changes rapidly, but the ability to apply critical analysis to issues and understand how to construct an argument with supporting facts lasts a lifetime. Too often we're seeing new journalism graduates who know how to do a Google search and construct a basic news article, but they don't know how to follow leads, file an FOIA (Freedom of Information Act), collect documents, develop human sources or do serious research. (J.W., Las Vegas Review)
The problem with a lot of graduate journalism programs, I believe, is that they focus on high tech digital tools at the expense of storytelling. So, you have a lot of students who come out as experts in computer programming, digital visualization etc. but if you send them out to the street to report a story, they have no idea what to do. I believe that as much as journalism schools need to keep up with new technology, they must also teach the basics of reporting. Sound news judgement. Good writing. Interviewing. Research skills. Disaster reporting. How do you approach people who are in crisis as a journalist? You hone these skills of course through experience but schools should at least be getting journalism students to start thinking along those lines. (T.D., Oakland Tribune)
Some argue that all these skills should be considered together, including the ‘academic side’ as the reporter AC states:
- The trade of journalism: Just practice interviewing, writing and being edited. Nothing but practice will accomplish this.
- Technical side: Learning how to work with video, audio, CMS platforms and code. And learning how to learn new things.
- The academic side: Being able to think about the audience, think about user experience, and think about creating a product that fulfils a need (A.C., Connecticut Mirror).
The participants are divided about how best to organise journalism education and there are basically three different approaches:
Integrating current journalism programs with multimedia. This involves combining technical training with classical journalism training. The first stage contains learning to use video, interactive techniques, coding, data journalism, social media and tools while the second dimension is expressed as ‘thinking deeply about how you tell stories differently’ (D.Z., Boston Globe), and ‘ethical curation’, and ‘ethical standards’(I.L., Digital First Media).
Another degree is better. Few suggested picking up a different degree as an extension of their interest in the other disciplines/areas. For example:
I would advise do not go to journalism school. Pick up a topic. History of religion would have been more useful for myself. I read but it is not the same. Another degree rather than journalism. (R.N., AP).
Journalism and another degree together. This seems the most favoured option among the participants. Matt Carroll, for example, advises a computing degree after gaining a degree in journalism. He self-studied maths and computing. (M.C., Civic Media, Boston Globe). Computing and science degrees are mentioned by other journalists as well:
I envy people who got another undergrad degree in another field and then a master’s in journalism or the other way around […] I was the only one in 70-80 people in the master [program] holding a journalism degree, all the others had English, biology, economics […] They understand something about their subject. With a computing degree you would know more about data visualization. Or a science degree could help to write more about the things they are interested in. This kind of mixture is good in journalism. (C.L., Nieman).
J-schools wouldn't like it, but maybe journalism should only be a minor, with future journalists getting degrees in law, computer science, economics, business, accounting or some other specialty. (J.W., Las Vegas Review).
The areas specifically mentioned that would help to develop and widen the focus in order to become a better reporter or editor are politics, business, economics, science, art, humanities and geography. (D.H., Boston Business Journal, B.C., The Columbus Dispatch).
William Merrin (2009) suggests upgrading Media Studies, which was a product and reflection of the broadcast-era of media, to reflect the rise of digital media. According to Merrin, digital media do not just impact upon our discipline and knowledge, they also have the potential to transform how we teach and transmit it. He mentions web publishing as an example: It does not replace books but allows to engage more directly with each other, and to challenge and push the field forward. Katherina Reed brings up the teaching hospital model of journalism education by the Nieman Lab that focuses on learning by doing in a teaching newsroom. She argues that there is a need for thoughtful and fearless discussion of teaching journalism with an experimental mind: ‘In this sense, the analogy to the teaching hospital may not be perfect, because teaching hospitals provide instruction mostly on conventional cures and treatments, not experimental approaches that are equally likely to kill the patient as cure him forever’. (Reed, 2014)
It seems that these discussions will continue according to the changes beyond technology. It is also important to discuss which changes are desirable and which are not; which practices and values are there to be protected or challenged. As Newton states:
The digital age is changing almost everything − who a journalist is, what a story is, which media work to provide news, when and where people want it, and how we engage with communities. The only thing that isn’t changing is why. We still care about good journalism (and communications) because in the digital age they still are essential elements of peaceful, productive, self-improving societies. (Newton, 2012)
That is especially important in the world we live in − full of injustice, violence and intolerance. Journalism and different forms of storytelling matter a lot, especially in the age of the post-truth discourses of populist leaders and the following developments occurring. These words of a journalist being interviewed can be our closing remarks. They are a wish if not a reality:
We all share a common humanity. It does not matter if you live in a tiny village or a city, we can relate to each other. (R.N., AP)
Merrin, W. (2009). “Media Studies 2. 0 : Upgrading and Open-Sourcing the Discipline”. Interactions: Studies in Communication & Culture. 1, no. 1 : 17–34. doi:10.1386/iscc.1.1.17/1.
Newton, E. (2012). “Journalism Schools Aren’t Changing Quickly Enough”. Nieman Lab. (http://www.niemanlab.org/2012/09/eric-newton-journalism-schools-arent-changing-quickly-enough/)
Pavlik J. and Frank Bridges (2013). “The Emergence of Augmented Reality (AR) as a Storytelling Medium in Journalism” Journalism & Communication Monographs. 15: 4-59.
Reed, C. (2014). “Before the “Teaching Hospital Model” of Journalism Education: 5 Questions to Ask”. Nieman Lab. http://www.niemanlab.org/2014/10/before-the-teaching-model-of-journalism-education-5-questions-to-ask/