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)

     

    Press freedom is all very well, but where’s the business model?

    Advert for my coaching businessIt’s World Press Freedom Day and Twitter (aka the place where journalists talk to each other, while fondly believing they are talking to Their Readers) is busting at the seams with opinion pieces and calls to action.

    I had no intention of adding my voice to the fray, but a piece by Glenda Daniels, Associate Professor in Media Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand, collided in my brain with a thread I admired on Twitter recently, and demanded some opining of my own.

    Professor Daniels notes how hard it is to discern the real news from the “fake”, and says that one of the threats to the public’s trust in the media is the decimation of senior staff in newsrooms. She mourns in particular cuts in the ranks of sub-editors, who she says play a key role in fact-checking. She talks about the creation of sub hubs: centralised sub-editing services, where “one sub-editor will end up contracted to two or three or even more titles”. She writes:

    “Many of the sub-editors in these set-ups are not particularly senior, lacking the institutional memory that would allow them to detect factual errors. And those who do remain have no particular loyalty to one title, so feel less pressure to thoroughly, rigorously check facts – a process that takes enormous time, especially when you are editing scores of stories each day. What should replace those full-time, dedicated sub-editors? I believe that fact-checkers could be employed instead.”

    There is nothing to disagree with here. I support the importance of fact-checking and its role in keeping the trust of readers alive, but I think there’s a deeper issue that needs unpacking too. Continue reading

    News in the time of Generation Z

    Group of teenagers on their phones

    Picture: Nben54, Wikimedia Commons

    I’m not sure I care much for the “generation” way of looking at the world. Baby boomer, Millennial… who cares, we are all people really.

    These sweeping generalisations are not often useful – but I think there might be an exception: the cohort of people apparently called “the Linkster generation” or Generation Z. (Linkster? Surely not. I will be sticking with Z.)

    The London Independent reckons that Generation Z makes up about 18 percent of the world’s population. These people grew up with social media, smart phones and apps. “Not only this, but someone born in 2002 is just going to have turned 15-years-old meaning they are developing into adults surrounded by both the help, expertise and pressures of social media, the internet and advanced technology.” (Wikipedia gives a wider date range for the birth years of Gen Z:  “demographers and researchers typically use the mid-1990s to early-2000s as starting birth years.”) Continue reading

    Why I still believe in journalism

    Picture_freeimages.com

    Picture: freeimages.com

    When I was a teenager I was intense and clever, a misfit loner. I went off to university pretty much unchanged and emerged four years later a little more sophisticated but still essentially a right pain to be around.
    I was about to get lucky – I was offered a job at the Cape Times. I was sent off to cadet school in Port Elizabeth, spent six months working on the EP Herald, and then returned to Cape Town as the most junior of junior reporters in a big and busy newsroom.
    I didn’t know it then but I had found my home.
    Continue reading

    Renee’s Golden Rules

    In my years as a sub-editor on South African newspapers, and as a trainer, I wrote some training materials. Below is one that’s intended as a one-page guide to the basic legal rules applying to SA journalism. It was first published on my sister Gill Moodie’s site Grubstreet:

    Continue reading