Posted by: structureofnews | October 8, 2010

Who’s On First?

What’s the role of digital in newsrooms?  Or rather, when‘s the role?

Designer Mario Garcia, just off the relaunch of El Tiempo in Columbia, posts on his blog about the malaise he sees in US newsrooms and what he thinks is a misplaced emphasis when they think about digital.

Digital platforms are a reality, not likely to disappear, and most likely to thrive and to provide revenue for media houses worldwide, in due time.  Digital is the future, but digital first-—-a song that is choreographed and sung in so many newsrooms by executives of a certain age who wish to impress their peers with the “with it” attitude—-is NOT the answer at all.

Storytelling first is more likely. Platforms second.

Amen. It’s a nice counter to the recurring mantra of digital first and a fixation on speed at news organizations anxious to embrace the web.

That’s not to say that newsrooms should just stick to what they’re doing and ignore online.  Clearly there’s much to do:  Not least listen to readers, understand their feedback about what they want, and ideally involve and engage them in the publication.   If that’s what people mean by digital first, that’s great.

But too often it’s a rallying cry for simply writing and posting faster and faster, and for throwing everything multimedia at the wall to see what sticks.  Certainly some things should be done faster, and some things should be posted early.  And multimedia can be very good, when it works.  But everything exacts a cost, and it’s not always clear that companies are really thinking hard about the tradeoffs that they’re making when they pursue speed or multimedia at the expense of other things.

Obviously, speed can be a great benefit for readers.  As can high-quality videos.  But oftentimes speed isn’t highly valued by readers – I can read about the school board meeting tomorrow just as happily as I can read about it now – and too often the videos aren’t particularly good, despite eating up an extra hour or two of reporter and editor time.   And if the the public doesn’t value what we do, then why do we do it?  And if we’re not chasing speed, what should we be chasing?

Mario says storytelling.  I wouldn’t disagree, although I might frame it a slightly different way.

We should be chasing readers – not all readers, and not necessarily massive numbers of readers.  We should be chasing the readers we want.  That means know what they want, or might want.  And then it means figuring on how best to serve that up, on a platform-by-platform basis.

In other words, somethings work well on mobile but not in print and other things online but not on iPads.  Let’s be platform-specific about what we do, and try to offer that to readers.  If that’s storytelling – figuring out what works best on each platform to give readers what they need, then I’m all for storytelling.  If that’s understanding what advantages are inherent in each platform, then I’m for that too.

Print offers serendipity and a break from the hurly-burly of the world.  Online offers information-when-you-want-it and in a interactive format that allows for exploration.  Mobile offers location-specific immediacy.  And so on.

And we need to leaven this with two other considerations: What pays the bills and what the public interest  is.  We can’t feed readers things that we can’t sustain – so we need to find a revenue stream, whether that’s subscription, service fees, advertising, grants or donations, that’s attached to the product.  And we should ideally have a sense of some public good that we’re doing as well.

So I don’t think digital first is a good mantra.  Reader first – understanding and tailoring solutions based on each platform, with an eye on the cash register and public good – is a less catchy mantra.  But I think it makes much more sense.


  1. Online, video, print, mobile, audio, flash and other platforms are just different ways of telling stories, and they should be treated as that. A wonderful opportunity for journalists to find new stories to tell and new ways to tell stories.

    Content is always going to be content. We just need to think of how we treat it more carefully. No medium is better or worse than another, they are just different. Often with different audiences, different ways of consuming and different payoffs.

    This is the big mistake I see many editors making. Instead of trying to understand the mediums, they rush in and try to jump on the latest buzzword, focus on a narrow field of vision without stepping back thinking about how (or even if) it should be used.

    Last year it was web first, now it is twitter, next year it will be iPad. And everyone will be desperate to throw all of their content onto it in some kind of catchall solution without really giving much thought on how to make the most of the medium.

    It’s why digital specialists need to make themselves part of the conversation in the newsroom and not just salad dressing. It’s also why editors need to start trying to make a genuine effort to understand – not just drink coffee at conferences and take a few buzzwords home to throw around at board meetings.

    • Adam, I don’t know about you, but when I’m at conferences I try to drink something stronger than coffee. It helps me forget the buzz words.

      But yes, all mediums (media?) have advantages and disadvantages (and different business models), and we need to do a much better job of maximizing our use of them. One of the key problems we have is that we tend to take the story – and often the print story – as the atomic unit of news, and then try to shoehorn it into one of the other forms. That leads to unhappiness in the newsroom, and frankly not very good video/slideshow/graphic/database. And that kind of thinking also tends to ignore the real costs of scrambling to try everything.

      More fundamentally, I think it doesn’t really address what it is we as journalists are trying to do, or examine the value we are trying to create. Hence my focus about structured journalism rather than multimedia or multiplatform publishing. Not that they aren’t important – they are – but that it’s much more important to think about what we’re trying to do before jumping into any particular way of doing it. Reg

  2. It’s one of the biggest challenges facing newsrooms today. Shifting the mentality away from print is king. Equally as dangerous is shifting the mentality to web is king.

    The focus should be. Content is king.

    As you said, not everything works on every medium. And if you take 5 mediums you could potentially tell the story in five different ways, or even five different stories.

    It’s all down to the planning and the mindset (and of course the budget!). If journalists can sit down and see a story as a story, and then think about the best fit – future transitions (and there will be shifts, its a given in the technological age) – will become easier to manage.

  3. Oh…and the culture shift also involves journalists letting go of their ‘content’ a little to allow other people to work it in a different way. Something which seems harder than it appears.

    We all know how much journalists hate having their content change right 🙂

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