Making better use of journalism technology, take two

The first phase of the adoption of new technologies is breathless and unreflective. Vast and weighty conclusions are drawn about the meaning of change and future trends based only on the first phase.

This makes as much sense as it would have done to project the future of domestic architecture from the mud hut. Invention and innovation are important, but so is adaptation and particularly adaptation to how people react to new opportunities and seeing what they need and want. Steve Jobs wasn’t just good with code and gadgets; he was an anthropologist as well, and a very shrewd one.

We can now say, twenty years or so after the internet entered the mainstream, that we’ve got our breath back and we’re starting to see intelligent adaptation of new media in journalism. Straws in the wind:

  • Science journalists on mainstream media are starting to see that linking to sources is going to change their field in the next few years. Hotlinks make “footnotes” easy and simple to put in text. Yes, they’re chore to insert. But I’m as certain as I am of anything that footnoting will be a standard feature in quality journalism in a few years. The user can see the source and if necessary open a new window to look at the detail which lies behind. This came up this week at the UK Conference of Science Journalists.
  • In a few years time, young journalists will be astonished to hear that well into the second decade of this century, major news websites with pretensions to be taken seriously – particularly those with print legacies – did not routinely require reporters to link to disclosable sources. “You mean you just asked them to take it on trust?” the shocked youngsters will ask. One effect of footnotes will be less bad science in news media. Not instantly, but gradually. And the improvement needn’t be confined to science either.
  • The resistance to thinking in terms of jigsaws and encyclopaedias is beginning to break down. News websites are, still, largely driven and dominated by people who think of news as disposable, like the newsprint it was distributed on. Once it’s gone to the consumer and been read, it’s gone. Websites aren’t like that. They have rolling news which comes and goes. But that layer of fast-moving information sits atop and supplies a slowly-accumulating mountain of data, a digital encyclopaedia. A big site will by now have built up an online archive of several million pages. The best sites carry links to related stories. But the linking is automated and crude.
  • So far. If a big story breaks in Syria or Burma, you want to read the correspondent on the spot first. But it would be great to have the backstory, the background, opinions and analysis from other sources, other versions of the same event all laid out and labelled. A richer menu of ways of seeing the story; a better jigsaw, in short.
  • TV companies and websites have noticed that young consumers of sport and entertainment often watch TV while using smartphone or tablets to discuss what they’re seeing. We’re not very far from editorial content which is designed for two-screen consumption. (I’m supervising the Masters dissertation of a student who is currently on an internship at a major news website in London studying just this). An independent report the other day criticised the BBC for failing to use its own depth of knowledge properly in reporting the Arab Spring. They had a huge website with lots of cool stuff on it and didn’t point enough people towards it. Here’s Alfred Hermida, who used to work in BBC Online, lamenting this.
  • Lastly, comments. I’ve long thought that simply making comment space available at the end of articles is an overblown advance. Navigating your way through the abuse, duplication, one-on-one squabbles is simply too time-consuming. The problem is partly technical – how do you sift for what’s worth reading? – and partly exaggerated deference to the idea that everyone’s opinion is equally valuable. Comment software has destroyed that illusion. Here’s Clay Shirky noticing that Gawker have begun to do something about this.

 

 

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