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What Journalists Are Losing Out On By Not Taking Ownership Of The Internet

In the first part of this series, I mentioned that by holding on to ancient ideas about the Online medium, journalists, journalism leaders and journalism schools were missing greater insights about the Online medium that would end up changing the profession. I would like to expand that argument in this part.

The Print medium told stories using text as the core artifact. Photographs introduced still visuals, audio brought sound and video brought moving pictures to news storytelling. What did the Internet give us?

Initially, it was thought that the Online medium brought multimedia and speed of updates to news storytelling. Big and small media harnessed these two artifacts to create online news and have taken us to where we are today. The learning curve, however, has extended a little too long.

The two most powerful artifacts of the Online medium have however remained grossly underused for news storytelling. They are Interactivity and Networkedness — the fact that a computer/cellphone/tablet is a two-way device and is connected live to billions of such live devices across the world.

While news media companies have been phenomenal at harnessing text, photos, audio and video to tell compelling stories and build billion dollar empires, they have until now failed miserably at harnessing Interactivity and Networkedness for storytelling. Sure, they have been used to create better news delivery mechanisms (RSS feeds, Mobile Apps, Washington Post’s Trove.com, etc), but they haven’t yet been seen in use as an integral part of storytelling.

Look at it this way — when writers were slowed down by pens or keyboards that caused physical inconvenience, the pen and peripheral industries invented pens that wrote smoother and lasted longer or keyboards that were ergonomical. The still camera industry responded (and continues to do so) to the photographers’ need for lower production costs, better zoom and light control at a better resolution and more. Similar things can be said for recording devices and video cameras. Even before 3-D video becomes a mass democratized technology, TV news will perhaps be one of the first to adopt it (imagine watching a real war in 3-D). In each of these media, the journalist or creative professional always had a frontier, a possibility, a ‘what if’ on his wishlist that the underlying technology could answer with a new product and help him use his craft to express himself or tell more compelling stories in a never-before manner.

But with the Online medium, for the first time, journalists and creative professionals are at a complete loss of ideas, possibilities, a vision, a ‘wishlist’ that a technocrat can answer to with new technologies or products that utilize Networkedness and Interactivity. A revolutionary new medium is taking shape around them and they have no clue what they would do with it, even if anything were possible.

If journalists don’t stand up to take ownership of this exciting new medium and build great things on it, the engineers and the MBAs will. In the news businesses that will emerge, journalists will continue to remain at the bottom of the Excel sheet of layoff-ability.

That is indeed what has been happening, when a lawyer builds the web’s most important technology news site (Michael Arrington – Techcrunch) or two engineers build the most exciting magazine App for tablets and phones (Flipboard). A former equity research analyst edits one of the most popular business news websites (Henry Blodget – Businessinsider). Journalists of the traditional mould don’t quite dictate things in these companies.

The next generation of media barons and journalists would perhaps be those who who discover ways to harness Interactivity and Networkedness to tell news stories, in ways as distinctly unique as print, video, audio and photography have been. And make profitable businesses out of that capability.

Some work on this front is already taking place. Data Journalism — see it for yourself — is a phenomenally better way of telling trend stories, a staple of business journalists. This is not merely a different way of doing infographics. This changes journalism because instead of looking for processed inferences, data journalists go out hunting for raw data from their sources, often big data. Instead of the selecting three or four top trends from a study and writing it as a text story, they instead plot all the available data in an interactive visualisation which engages readers to become their own narrators. At PaGaLGuY, we’ve been doing it too — example 1 and example 2.

Game journalism — telling news stories using games is another example of using Interactivity and Networkedness as storytelling artifacts. One could look at video games as the next-generation fiction novel, wherein you navigate the story in the skin of the protagonists’s character. The news equivalent would be one wherein news stories are well-textured interactive digital environments that one could navigate in the skins of various newsmakers related to that story. Analytical journalism would be all about building these fact-rich interactive environments that “readers” could navigate to understand the events first-hand and form informed opinions.

Perhaps the news stories of tomorrow will be entire cellphone or tablet Apps offering an immersive, visually dazzling and informationally comprehensive experience about a happening. The definition of ‘good storytelling’ will transform to a reporter’s ability to gather facts and get scoops AND creatively design an App that offers the best immersive experience for that story. The Apps would also have built-in ability to make people’s lives easier. For example, a news App on the Japan earthquake would, besides delivering news updates, visuals, live statistics 3-D panoramic environments and videos of the affected sites, also allow those who are stranded to ping their location to the world and initiate rescue operations, continuing to allow journalists to do good with their work. All that combined with good journalistic legwork, investigative skills and high editorial standards to put the best stories out there in the most awesome possible manner, journalism would reclaim its status as a truly multi-disciplinary profession and in the process, spawn ideas and technologies that other disciplines would adopt.

Easy-to-use software tools to create such Apps would be available as easily as Microsoft Word is today. The best journalists would of course, even know software coding and design. They would be the ones climbing up editorial leadership positions and setting the vision.

As futuristic as this may sound, it’s perhaps all of 5 to 15 years away in India but well within our careers, going by the speed with which media consumption and capture devices and supporting software are evolving. All those who are now becoming journalists because of the “love of writing” would get sidelined (except the very best who would continue to produce very high quality longform journalism) unless they develop skills to stay meaningful in these platforms. Journalists who tend to take pride over their disdain of technology and mathematics (and there are a lot of them) will find it daunting that these two streams are increasingly contributing to the skillsets required in the new order.

Today, at the very basic, including one’s audience into the storytelling process is a hugely effective use of the Interactivity and Networkedness dimensions. Even though journalists didn’t invent it (blogging platforms and bloggers did), they have begrudgingly started using it. On Techcrunch, Engadget, PaGaLGuY and many other hugely popular niche news sites, readers are themselves sources and most often, a story is the sum total of what the reporter wrote and what the reader discussions spawned below it. Only after reading both does one fully comprehend the story. As journalists at PaGaLGuY, we measure our success by the amount of discussions our stories were able to spark off. Of course — the emphasis on factual accuracy, responsibility, speed and elegance of language in the reporter’s work is an uncompromised work ethic.

This is not merely a matter of adding a ‘Comments’ feature to your website or the laughably contrived concept of ‘citizen journalist’ handed out as platitudes. This is about creating a vast, responsible, dedicated and deeply integrated Community around your news website whose members put as much thought into participating in discussions around your story as you did in writing it in the first place. Often, big stories are broken by stakeholder readers in these discussions, the kind that would award promotions to journalists in newspapers. The art of nurturing high quality online communities is all about placing self-moderation at the core of the community’s culture. Forming this intimate a connect with readers sometimes allows websites to enter the realm of what has come to be known as ‘process journalism‘, wherein relatively reliable rumours are reported straight off and the story is tracked as it gets further confirmed and loaded with additional facts to reach the stage that the traditional media would consider a full-fledged story. Our own couple of experiments with process journalism at PaGaLGuY have shown that an intelligent and responsible community of stakeholder readers ends up assisting the reporter by giving tipoffs to speed up the news gathering process from the rumour to confirmation stage.

That’s broadly where the world of news seems to be going. Even though some of the ideas above may seem straight out of a sci-fi novel, they are under implementation in sporadic avenues of innovation in international news organizations and renegade startups. They will evolve in the next decade into something that we can see as seamlessly integrating into devices that have and will continue to be pervasive in our lives.

In India, the urban Internet audience is large enough for the big news media to start taking such leaps, or at least begin experiments that could culminate in strong news products in two or three years. Starting early will also give the companies the agility and momentum to compete with disruptive startups in the space.

In contrast, the course content of the ‘New Media’ elective at India’s top journalism schools still comprises tutorials on — drum roll and high hat — Dreamweaver. In 2011! These are skills which were obsolete 7 years ago. The students ought to sue the J-schools for this ghastly under-delivery of service.

At the least, there should be a full course on ‘The Business of News Media’ at these J-schools which broadly brings the attention of future journalists to the following,

(1) Journalism is going to change, and in India too. If you are under 40, it will probably affect you before you retire. Prepare yourself for it and build skills so that you don’t end up at at the bottom of the list of dispensables during shakeout periods.

(2) Take an active interest in your employer’s business model and if possible, learn how the revenues of your division have changed over the years. If the revenue of the division you work for or the part of revenue that draws from your skills is in danger, it means your skills are on the way to become less needed. Upgrade yourself, actively watch companies which are at the forefront of evolution in news and connect the dots. It will tell you what you need to do to stay relevant.

(3) “I want to be a journalist because I love writing” will not last you an entire career or help your retirement planning if you are under 35-40. In another 10-15 years, the newspaper industry may transform into or be replaced by a technologically-savvy version of itself that competes based on how well it tells stories using immersive and interactive experiences. Invest in yourself by joining a news company that cares about the Internet so that when the change comes, you are among the early starters, experienced and badly wanted in leadership positions. Else if all you want to do is write all your life, become an author or an analyst in a KPO.

Fourthly, I think that India with its free media culture and a tremendous young human resource in software engineering is pre-equipped to build the next generation of news storytelling on rich interactive devices. If only our big media companies would begin investing in being as much technology companies as they are media houses, then with the right set of people and vision, in ten to fifteen years India could not only be redefining journalism, but also ruling the world in the post-Murdoch era. This will not happen if media houses merely hire a few engineers and then treat them as input-output artistes as they do graphic designers or animators. Nor will outsourcing the software give them the necessary ownership and agility to compete with disruptive startups. Entire technology teams and culture would have to be developed within big media houses, where the software coders take pride in solving problems surrounding an important human need using the best of what the day’s technology has to offer.

I would personally love to know people who can see this future of their profession and hope to work with them sometime in my career.


Apurv Pandit is the Editor of PaGaLGuY.com, a news, opinions and discussions website on business and higher education. A journalist since 7 years, he has written in several newspapers and magazines including Indian Express, The Pioneer, Hindustan Times and Outlook.

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