Media innovation is more a mindset adoption than technology
May 29, 2013
Media innovation requires a shift in mindset rather than just technological adoption, as traditional journalism struggles to adapt to digital formats and audience preferences.
"No one is going to pay for a journalistic product that is also published in a thousand other places." This astute observation is from a Finnish journalist, made in a text from OJR, an online magazine from the University of Southern California. As simple as it may seem, the comment is at the root of the misunderstanding of the digital migration of journalism. But it does not stop there. The practice of journalism, even before digital, had been reduced to the reproduction of agency stories, publication of press releases, and reduction of newsrooms to increase company profits. Now, as there is no way out, the industry can take advantage of the change to try a new version of New Journalism. There is no longer any way to avoid the risks. So, it is better to take full advantage of them.
First of all, a comment. The title of this post is not mine, but from two journalists who run a site about journalism, the Monday Note. They make a very relevant reflection on how practices in digital newsrooms are still stuck in manuals and guidelines set over half a century ago that either no longer make sense or take away from the efficiency of news collection.
I often talk here about journalism practiced in newspapers and how this media is going through a storm for which it was not prepared. But, as media, not only are newspapers in the Stone Age. In the best cases - like the BBC - the reporting style is still incredibly similar to what was being done twenty years ago. And in the vast majority of cases, not even that. Watching the stories of any Brazilian broadcaster (and most foreign ones too) is as exciting as reading a 500-page manual written in sans serif. The way of narrative on TV has aged, becoming repetitive, bureaucratic, and tedious. In the case of radio, it is even worse, as all the criticisms made to TV apply, but with drastically inferior resources. Fréderic Filloux's criticism of the unbelievable journalistic slavery in relation to practices inherited from print and audiovisual media is absolutely pertinent. He says:
"Every time I read a newspaper (or its online version), I am appalled by the antiquated way of writing news. The directors of companies whose parent company is not digital media have not realized that things have changed. For example, readers no longer demand quotes to give weight to a story. They want to be taken from one point to another in the narration, with the best possible argument, without distractions or wasting time".
There is a possible contradiction in Filloux's argument. Someone may say that New Journalism (a term coined by writer Tom Wolfe) is the antithesis of hard news journalism done in digital newsrooms. It is the richer, more worked, refined, and often much more literary text than journalistic. In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote (or any profile he did for the New Yorker, like this one of Marlon Brando) or The Fight, by Norman Mailer are literary pieces par excellence that today would not have space in newsrooms.
The question is: is it really not? Or is it the mindset of the newsrooms (especially in Brazil) that is used to the triad of low salaries-scarce time-risk-free agendas? A profile made by the New York Times about Lindsay Lohan, her junkie lifestyle, and director Paul Schrader's gamble on trying to make a triumphant return to the cinema is far from the mediocre formula of fitting reportage into dumbing down manuals. A piece like this would hardly be published in other newspapers. The production of invariably repetitive news is a requirement of editors encouraged not to have courage by the administration.
Digital newsrooms must think, first of all, about the formats they should deliver and not what is done today - an adaptation of the material that is printed. Teams focused on producing hard news will necessarily need to analyze user behavior to try to find out what to offer to their audiences. Much of the information in real-time demand will come from streams of big data, large amounts of data that will only be curated by a few professionals. Events that require repercussions and suites will not accept canny little texts with two routine quotes in the lead and three more paragraphs of "context" (a euphemism used by many newspapers to be able to copy yesterday's material into today's story without much shame). To unravel and delve into these stories, real reporting and real context. Journalism, far from being in crisis, is evolving. The journalistic industry, yes, is going through serious difficulties, as this text from the Online Journalism Review suggests. If the industry succumbs, it will be replaced by another, more suitable one. Survival of the fittest, as Darwin said.
Yes, there is still uncertainty about how it will be possible to sponsor this more breathless material, but it is likely that a new news ecosystem should emerge in the gaps that will remain from the decline of large companies, in the same way that in technology, new generations of companies - the startups that now dominate the scene - emerged as the market grew and the titans IBM and Microsoft gave ground. The only safe conclusion is the one raised by Filloux, that subscribers who pay for material will hardly accept to pay for poorly written content and in a format they no longer want. The only way out for journalism is to aggressively bet on innovation. And this movement must be from top to bottom. In fact, the change is so difficult because it has to start at the top. Otherwise, it would have already started. Once again, quoting Filloux, we are waiting for another Tom Wolfe.