The NYT cuts and the 3 types of journalism (plus one) #ONA14

by Andrea Iannuzzi – translated by Roberta Aiello

Byjo6ccIEAAIWpN.jpg large

Data, algorithms, virtual reality, software, case studies such as the puppets of Sesame Street, able to resist time and the change of generations. In Chicago, nearly 2,000 online news professionals exchanged ideas on the state of the art and future scenarios of journalism, while the New York Times was preparing to announce a new cut in staff (100 jobs, equivalent to 7.5 per cent of the total) and the revision of some digital experiments – particularly the NYT Opinion app.

At the end of the conference, the Online Journalism Awards decreed the triumph of ProPublica (with 5 awards, including “general excellence”) and non-profit journalism, which now constitutes a category of its own, alongside the so-called “legacy media” and “all digital.” Each of these examples of journalism seek their own path to success, while users seem to reward the journalism of the fourth type which aggregates social platforms, is less and less neutral and more and more oriented towards news. (in the picture, ONA Executive Director Jane McDonnell along with the Cookie Monster, star of “Sesame Street” and guest of honor at the conference).

[tweetable]When users are the product: the 3 types of journalism and the advancement of “platform thinking”[/tweetable]


And the winner is… ProPublica

At the end of three days of the ONA conference in Chicago, the ceremony of the Online Journalism Awards had its “Titanic”. ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative website, won five Oscars for its reports, including “general excellence.” Scrolling through the list of winners there are many other non-profit organizations, including newspapers such as the Texas Tribune. Europe was rewarded with prizes appointed to the Norwegian VG for the coverage of the World Chess Championship and to the European Journalism Centre for Rebuilding Haiti in the category “explanatory journalism.” The award ceremony was also the occasion for an announcement by Jim Brady, former president of ONA. Beginning next year, it will set up an award for feelance war journalism in memory of Jim Foley, the colleague murdered by ISIS.

How many types of journalism exist? At least three

The ONA conference established a kind of three-way division of (ways of thinking and doing) journalism, at least with regards to the scenario of journalism in English, with inevitable grey areas. 1. The “legacy” media which can be assimilated to the New York Times brand. 2 The “all digital” media, ranging from Buzzfeed to Mashable. 3. The “non-profit” media, ie ProPublica, foundations, university research centers.

Legacy media: between cultural ballast and technological innovation

The news came just days after the conclusion of ONA14. The New York Times has begun a program of cost reduction that plans the cutting of 100 jobs, the shutting down of NYT Opinion, a digital experiment set up just a few months ago (“Fail fast, try again”), and a change in the strategy for some apps outside the paywall. The company’s motivation is the need “to safeguard the long-term profitability” of the newspaper. In order to see the complete scenario it should be noted that, in recent months, the staff had been enriched with “digital” figures hirings, in particular web producers and video journalists. The case of the NYT is not isolated: the Wall Street Journal and USA Today are reducing their staff too.

Everyone is trying to accelerate the transition from a professional culture and an industrial structure focused on print towards digital. Culture and industrial structure, however, are the ballast that does not facilitate the resumption of business. The example came from the panel of ONA14 dedicated to the Innovation Report of the New York Times, whose editors took the stage to talk about the backstage of the operation and answer questions from the audience. Newsrooms around the world have read, analyzed, commented and in part tried to apply the ideas of that Report. A good summary of the situation was the joke by the editor for newsroom strategy at the NYT, Tyson Evans, about the importance of the printed front page as a mythical place, a goal for every journalist: “Page 1 is great – Tyson said – but it is better to be notified of your piece on the smartphone, able to vibrate thousands of legs simultaneously.”

However, this does not seem to be a widespread trend among executives, editors, columnists, correspondents and reporters any more. The impression is that the Innovation Report, as well as representing a strategic plan, is the litmus test of the starting point. The debate over whether the executive of the NYT uses twitter actively is emblematic.

Legacy media are looking for ways to save their businesses but are hampered by structural and cultural limitations. In addition, they know they have little time before the collapse and experiencing these conditions is very difficult. The risk, according to an aviation metaphor overheard behind the scenes of the conference, is that the descent will not end with a landing but with a fatal stall.

Pro tip: “Minecraft journalism”

There are exceptions, of course, which represent experimental jumps into the future rather than organic projects. The Des Moines Register – of the Gannett group – coordinated by Dan Pacheco, professor of journalism innovation at Syracuse University, has produced a documentary to explain the generational transitions in the rural life of Iowa. The peculiarity of the project is that it was made using virtual reality and 3D.

The aim, in the words of Mitch Gelman, vice president of Gannett Digital, is to achieve the “Minecraft” generation, ie those readers – mostly young people – accustomed to immersing themselves in virtual three-dimensional video games, wearing viewers such as Oculus Rift, a necessary tool to fully enjoy the storytelling on farms in Iowa.

The challenge within the challenge was to deal with an issue that is low itself in special effects, to avoid the “Star Wars” effect and to try to attract the user’s attention on the content. The result is a journey through plantations, farms, warehouses, ultra-modern tractors which takes the user to center stage. It is possible to move back and forth with the keyboard control in a faithfully reproduced virtual reality and to delve into a topic, clicking on appropriate signals, starting a three-dimensional video able to look 360 through degrees just by turning one’s head.

Is this the journalism of the future? It’s hard to say, because the diffusion of visual media is still very small. However, the Gannett Group believes that the industry is rapidly evolving, up to the point of creating, in the near future, services not only of “explanatory journalism” but also to cover breaking news. Certainly, it is the most innovative project among those presented in Chicago. The fact that it was made by an outlet belonging to “legacy media” is a message of hope.

The all digital: welcome to the realm of metrics

The chorus is well-known. The threshold of access to the media world has been reduced to zero by the digital era. Anyone can build a website (or an app, or a service) and in a few moves get to be a producer and/or distributor of news content. The problem – which also concerns the business of digital legacy media – is the economic return. It is a fact shared and established that the mine to be dug is that of data. In a world that has plenty of supply, scarcity is represented by time and attention.

The challenge is twofold: on the one hand to be increasingly adept at delivering the right content to the right user in the right way at the right time and on the right device; on the other to convince advertisers that the clicks sold have a real return on investment. The infallible formula has not yet been found, but lately the discussion – with several arguments against it – is on the idea of “attention” as the only expendable currency. It is the hallmark of Tony Haile, CEO of Chartbeat, who has also developed an ad hoc software with the Financial Times. Below the slides of the “Data State of the Union” that Haile presented in Chicago.

The risk for all-digital is that an excessively data-driven setting ends up at the expense of the quality of the content or resets the intermediation and choice function, entrusting it completely to the tastes and behavior of users. There are those who try to get out, building niches, there are those who are betting everything on social media for the purpose of engagement, those who think that there is a need to “explain well” in order to keep vigilant, who rely on a global audience in order to create critical mass and those who make a mix of everything.

The all digital has often proven to be more adept (and agile) than legacy media to move among digital content and capture attention, knowing that “users are the product” (Amy Webb), but still struggles to make this product economically sustainable and excellent on a quality level.

Pro tip: creative metrics to improve performance

It is easy to say “analytics”. Visitors (who are they? How are they calculated?), page-views (how are they generated?), bounce rate, time (and if the browser stays open while you do other things?). The joke of Wolfgang Blau, director of digital strategy of the Guardian, is fulminating: “Comscore (a worldwide leading company in the field of analytics) is right at the intersection of journalism and astrology.”

What could be done is to try to have some more elements on the effectiveness of content, “inventing” new systems of measurement. In this perspective, the experiment of Sonya Song of Michigan State University, using tools available to everyone as Google Analytics, and Facebook Insights to track ten quantitative and qualitative parameters, is instructive.

 (Amy Webb, 10 Tech Trends for Journalists)

High-quality, non-profit journalism

Look at ProPublica investigations such as Segregation Now, which won an award in Chicago, think about the tools you use regularly to create your content thanks to the research and design of the Knight Lab. Imagine that your mission is not only business but public service. This is the best environment to develop high-quality, strong, useful journalism which, in a virtuous circle, could also have a market.

Is it logical to think that the only future for “real” journalism is non-profit? When the news industry comes to an end (hopefully as late as possible), there will always be the need for the role of journalism in society. Benefactors, publishers with business in other areas and voluntary associations will be needed. Is it madness? I don’t know. It seems a plausible scenario to me.

Pro tip: structured journalism and the ability to make stories from data

It is difficult to give a definition of “structured journalism,” but it is certainly a way to perform “public service” that can involve both non-profit and for-profit journalism. Starting from data (like Homicide Watch, Politifact, Poderopedia), organized thanks to metadata and the architecture of CMS, it is possible to obtain stories, useful information for citizens, archives, memory, fact-checking. Structured journalism is in its infancy and each experiment has gone in its own direction. The goal is to create a place for discussion and development, starting from a Google group.

Journalism of the fourth type: social media and platforms

A survey carried out in Great Britain, focused on local news, concluded that among the more reliable and consulted sources of local news, Facebook is growing. According to the Wall Street Journal, however, American adults spend an average of 21 minutes on Facebook, which means 6% of the media diet and 10% of the digital advertising pie.

These are examples that show how social media (Facebook in particular, but also Twitter, if it is true that there will be an algorithm that regulates the Newsfeed) are being transformed from a neutral service platform – that does not produce original content – to a real media outlet, deciding when, how and what is put on the shelves.

There was much discussion also in Chicago, on stage and off, about the Facebook algorithm and its influence on traffic and engagement for news websites. Facebook defend themselves by saying that at the center of their interests is user experience and satisfaction. Those who produce quality content, interesting for their users, do not need to fear anything because they will be rewarded by the algorithm. Whoever makes spamming or click-bait or those looking for virality at any cost will be punished.

Who can assure us that it is and will always be so? The power of the algorithms is a topic that is becoming critical. The key word in Chicago about this issue has been “transparency.”

The transformation of social platforms into media companies, however, allows us to bring the argument back to where it had started: the staff cuts at the New York Times. When a newsroom reduces its staff, who should be let go and who should be kept on?

The lesson of social media (and other service platforms in different industries, such as Uber or Amazon) is that it is not necessary to produce content to be a leader in the field of news. The important thing is that there is content – and its abundance, in the digital age, is one of the few certainties. The real breakthrough is the ability to find, select, distribute and take it home and interact with the user on the basis of that content.

This is why it is increasingly important to insert into newsrooms high technological capacity (journalists programmers, data analysts, specialists for each type of device, curators, social media editors) at the expense of generalist skills (it is not enough “to know how to write”). The objection to this proposal is that if fixed costs are cut, it will be more and more difficult to produce qualitative, investigative, public service journalism. This is true, but that kind of journalism can also exist outside of the newsroom. What is important is to intercept, to supply, to commission it to someone we trust.

Quoting once again Amy Webb: “Newspapers and websites themselves are the product. On social networks users are the product. Amazon, Apple, Uber, are platforms that create value for others.”

See you at #ONA15 in Los Angeles and also at #IJF15 in Perugia (15-19 April).