Google’s Richard Gingras gave an interesting, forward-looking – and ideology-free – talk to journalism educators recently, and it’s well worth reading. He doesn’t offer any answers, but he does pose a set of insightful questions that should be at the front of mind of anyone pondering the future of journalism.
To name a few:
- How do we approach content architecture in an edition-less medium with a near limitless capacity for storage and accessibility?
- What is the evolution of the narrative form in a medium dominated by updates, bullet points, and posts?
- How can we take better and full advantage of computational journalism?
- What tools does a journalist need to have?
- What is the right approach to organizational workflow?
There’s more, but these are the ones closest to my heart – and to my mind, critical issues that journalists need to grapple with. (Not to mention mirror much of the thinking behind the notions of structured journalism, which keeps me happy. ) And he frames the issues well, in terms of questions that largely describe the world we now live in – and how we really haven’t adapted all that well to.
True, “content architecture” may sound a little like technology consultant-speak, but it’s really a question about how the story form should evolve now that news – or content – can be pulled on demand by users as much as it can be pushed to them; when information can persist, in effect, forever, and can in theory (and practice) be recombined in new forms; when interactivity and access to datasets can be a part of a daily news experience. He mentions Google’s Living Stories experiment, which was an intriguing attempt to marry both a traditional story form with a more personalized presentation of information that would stay with the reader. It was an interesting exploration into what stories might become, but much more could – and should – be done.
Richard also raises the disconnect between current web design and how people actually come to news these days – via search and social media, rather than through an elaborate home page – and questions what we’re doing to build sites that serve those users better. (There are some news sites working on this issue, but I haven’t seen a lot of examples out there.) It’s yet another example of how we’re still trying to use an old vision of the world – newspaper front pages and section fronts – and impose it on a new medium, the way early radio announcers used to treat radio as spoken newspapers and early TV newscasts are mostly radio with some pictures.
Four years ago, many news sites saw half their traffic come to the home page. By traffic I mean inbound uniques, not page views, not the returning visits of loyal users. Today, due to continued growth in traffic from search and social, home page traffic is typically 25 percent of inbound audience. That means 75 percent of inbound traffic is going to story pages.
What do these changes in audience flows say about site design? Indeed what do they say about the very definition of a website. Should we not flip the model and put dramatically more focus on the story page rather than the home page? Or for that matter, on that corpus of content and media we call a “story.”
And then, of course, there’s the question of how we can better use the new computing power and tools at our disposal – not just for better computer-assisted reporting and presentation of data, but to really embed it into the way we do our daily work. While companies like Narrative Science have been much written-about for their ability to create machine-generated stories that can’t be distinguished from the human kind, and the increasing proliferation of data has led to some fresh new visualizations and forms of data journalism – all very important advances – there’s less said about how we can marry all that power into our day-to-day work.
Can investigative journalism aggressively leverage computational journalism to not only help with stories but eventually become persistent, automated investigative reports?
There’s a fair amount to digest in the talk – and the sooner we dig into those questions and really unpick the assumptions we’ve built into old-fashioned media (as well as some of what’s come up to supplant/augment it), the better prepared we’ll be for this new world we live in. As Richard notes:
“Digital First” needs to be more than a catchphrase. It must drive a deep rethinking of our product models and behaviors. We have both the capability and the need to do things differently.