Disruptive storytelling in the digital age

Panel discussion with Adi Kochavi, Marc Lavallee, Vivian Schiller, Madhulika Sikka, Tim Verheyden


The second day of the International Journalism Festival in Sala del Dottorato kicks off with “Disruptive storytelling in the digital age”, a panel discussion moderated by Vivian Schiller, executive committee chair at Vocativ. The focus of the event is how new technologies and formats are being used to engage with the audience in an increasingly digitalised world. The question that often haunts journalists is “How many articles do we read a day, and how many do we remember the day after?”.

Tim Verheyden, storytelling coach at the Belgian broadcaster VRT News, acknowledges that digital changed the world of television irreversibly. “We are facing huge challenges in TV,” he says, “At a certain moment in time if what we do on TV is not good enough, people are not going to watch us anymore”. He explains that traditional broadcasters often make the mistake to think that uploading pieces of television programmes online is enough. However, audiences are increasingly harder to engage with and TV is now competing with the web for attention. “Sometimes you have to think about what format is the best to gain more impact,” he says.

But disruption can take a lot of angles, adds Marc Lavallee, editor of interactive news at The New York Times. Journalists have to find new ways to stick with the readers, as attracting them is not enough anymore. He brings some interactive articles from The New York Times to explain how they are using digital to keep the audience engaged. One is an blank chart where the reader can guess how the family income of a student is linked to his or her level of education, before finding out about the real data.

Digital hasn’t disrupted only the news output, but also the production process. Adi Kochavi, data story producer, says that “technology at Vocativ is the biggest differentiator”. Thanks to their ability to surf the darknet, a private network where illegal communities gather, they managed to write stories about 3D printed guns, biohacking experiments and implant parties. Despite how niche these issues might seem, “they are slowly beginning to surface and eventually are going to hit the surface web,” explains Adi. “When they hit the surface web they become mainstream, and when they became mainstream they affect all of us,” she concludes.

New digital formats are a great medium for cultural coverage too, points out Madhulika Sikka, leading news executive. She brings NPR’s “Book Concierge” as an example of turning something as dull as book rankings into an interactive book database that readers will remember and go back to. She also shows clips of a video by The New York Times on Justin Bieber, Diplo and Skrillex. In it, the three music stars explain how they produced the hit “Where Are U Now” with plenty of beats, singing and humor. In this case, the choice of the format is essential, as an article about the same topic wouldn’t have been as effective.

To conclude the presentation, Vivian challenges the panel by asking: “How do you create something really innovative that is just not a one-off?” The answer comes from Marc Lavallee: “In digital journalism you need both those who can understand new technologies (…) and those know how to scale stories.”

Martina Andretta