From truth to ego: Effective journalism in the digital age

    I was recently asked to be a presenter at a workshop offered by Safrea (the freelancer’s organisation in South Africa) – and given the topic: Effective Journalism in the Digital Age.

    When I sat down to prepare for the workshop (which mutated in the end into a webinar), I realised that I needed to define what effective journalism means. The term was thought-provoking – probably because journalists themselves don’t often think about what they do in terms of its effectiveness.

    Markers of effectiveness

    The list I came up with ended up having two dimensions: effectiveness for the intended audience, and effectiveness for the journalist him, her or theirself.

    In no particular order, my sense (based on experience and my own observations on this side of the fence) of what readers want is this:

    • Ease of access and readability – readers don’t want to have to work for their information
    • Fairness and accuracy – readers want to know they are getting the more-or-less unvarnished truth (but they will also want it to fit in with their pre-existing biases)
    • Education – people want to learn things (but not be lectured)
    • Entertainment – people want to have fun
    • A story – we are, as Terry Pratchett said, the storytelling chimpanzee, the Pan Narrans. Human beings simply cannot resist stories
    • Useful information (this includes a wide spectrum: from what is happening with the local train service to what is happening to my country, and from a timely recipe to how to get the baby to go to sleep).

    Journalists want to:

    • Find things out, satisfy curiosity (see below about gossip)
    • Allied with that, they love a crusade, the opportunity to uncover a wrong or tell the truth (as long as it fits in with their pre-existing biases). They may even believe they can change the world for the better
    • Have their egos boosted
    • Have fun and be part of a tribe (journos are often misfits of various kinds, so hanging together is a good thing. Plus… they love to gossip)
    • Make some money – they want what they do to be fairly compensated (so journalism needs to get itself a decent business model).

    How does that work in the digital age?

    To satisfy readers (and therefore be effective) journalists need to:

    Maintain all the old basic skills and values: Accuracy, fairness, balance, clear language, telling truth to power, public interest, accountability. Oh and the long hours and bad habits…. (see above about the tribe).

    Tell stories (just in many different ways): Journalists need to master some or all the different platforms on which stories are now told, from video to Instagram stories.

    Keep learning: Journalists need to keep up with trends and tricks, and keep upgrading their skills. This tweet shows how different things are from the days of the picture illustrating this article!

    Keep an eye on the money: In the past: “Magazines and newspapers sold subscriptions to readers, and sold eyeballs to advertisers… we controlled a valuable pipeline to reader eyeballs, a pipeline advertisers wanted to fill with information about their products. Then the Internet came along, and suddenly, we didn’t own the only pipeline any more.” (Adapted from an article by Megan McArdle, Washington Post).

    Now: To make journalism effective in the digital age, all journalists (from the most elevated editors to the lowliest of interns) need to spend every waking hour working on this problem. They need to research business models, write about them, and understand how analytics and metrics and trends work.

    Keep the ego happy: All journalists are to greater or lesser extent attention seekers. It used to be the byline that kept us going, and now it’s social media. Pick a platform and start talking!

    Above all remember the reader (viewer/listener/audience): The reader is king, queen, prince and princess. In the digital age, there are no captive audiences and no one is willing to read anything just because a journalist thinks it is important. Understand readers. Don’t make them work too hard, think about where they are: on their phones and tablets.

    From text to gif, work on making journalism accessible!

    Some of the topics in this post will be covered in more detail over the coming month – stay tuned! Follow me on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

    Main picture: CBC journalists in Montreal in 1944. Picture: Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec (public domain)

     

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