December 13, 2012

New journalistic practises : a high-tech job ?

On Dec 10th, and as every year since its creation, SciencesPo’s School of Journalism organised a conference on the new journalistic practises (#npdj12).

Sciences Po's Conference on the new practises of Journalism in 2012

The viability of media companies was central to many of the presentations and it doesn’t take much magic to guess that the Internet is the main catalyst for it. However, some of the suggest development avenues were probably a surprise for many and very intellectually stimulating. I will try to summarise 3 broad areas :

  • Tech: If there’s one point all speakers agree on, it’s the evolution of journalism towards more diverse and advanced technologies. Whether you look at the Huffington Post and its multilingual, multi-country CMS or at Buzzfeed, its 5 full-time developers (for a total staff of 75) and its highly elaborate and internally developed Web Analytics tools, new media are all resorting to elaborate technology in order to optimise their content production.Mark Hansen, presented a striking example of visualisation of the propagation of New York Times articles through various social media in order to understand factors of virality. According to Hansen, journalists, better trained into data capture technologies could bring a lot to the interpretation and analysis of Big Data. The use of publicly accessible data is also at the heart of The Texas Tribune‘s brand and 60% of the site’s articles provide viewers with dynamic, customisable graphs as well as the raw data used to calculated them.

    And the one tech evolution to take notice of is mobile publishing. Contrarily to TV and other traditional channels, for which the percentage of media spend closely follows the percentage of time spent by the public, traditional newspapers and mobile media sites stand at opposite ends of the time/investment spectrum. In spite of its well documented decline, newspaper advertising still outweighs the share of attention these media receive today. Whereas ad sped on mobile is still far below what it could be in the light of the time mobile users spend consuming information on Smartphones and tablets. The inevitable game of communicating vessels budgets therefore encourages the media to publish their articles on mobile platforms a.s.a.p., notably through the use of responsive design, a web technology allowing the display of information on a page to automatically adapt to the size of the navigator / screen on which it is being viewed. At the Washington Post, two full-time jobs are dedicated to mobile publishing and that department will likely grow in the future.

  • Going visual: As noted by Michael Downing, the Web, since its origins, has been built around printed media paradigms (text pages, banner ads …) whereas the public at large is more interested in brief and interactive experiences (particularly on mobile, I would add). This probably explains why the monetization opportunities of a 5-10 paragraph article are limited (by ad rates of a few dollars/CPM) which makes the economic model of online news companies extremely fragile. In contrast, monetization of short videos is 6 to 10 times superior!Big Data lends itself remarkably well to the most audacious and attractive graphical representations. The rise of infographics is one illustration, but it is necessary to see beyond these to stand out.

    A man flying on a fire extinguisher in the tube

    Buzzfeed, a fast-growing pure-player online information company is championing a form of visual storytelling particularly suited to media: animated GIFs. This 25 year-old graphic format received a boost in 1995 the Netscape navigator added automatic looping to its rendering of these animated pictures. And 2012 was definitely the year of the animated GIF which, for the first time made the homepage of prestigious publications such as The Guardian and The New York Times. The media’s recent interest for the format derives from its ability to present in brief sequences the essence of an action or an event. The ever repeating images tell much more of a story than a still while at the same time presenting the facts in a much more focused and condensed manner than a whole video. Scott Lamb strongly encourages journalists to learn to create and use these files in their work.

  • The role of social media in information propagation: According to Joshua Benton, on 48% of traffic to New York Times articles originates on the site’s homepage. This proportion falls to 12% for The Atlantic and to 6% for Benton’s Nieman Lab. An increasingly large portion of the public is discovering news and other forms of content via social media. Google still reigns king of traffic providers in many cases but media organisations that are prospering online focus more on the sharing of their content online than on any other visibility factor. Page views isn’t even a metric on Buzzfeed’s analytics dashboard! Virality takes precedence over all other goals. All the more so because the site’s business model relies on this sharing not only of published articles but also of advertisements (mainly stories sponsored by large brands)! 

    Analysing social sharing in various social media

    The most ‘liked’ content (which can range from a lolcat picture page to the analysis of a political discourse) is dissected, as are the social accounts at the origin of viral trend and all other factors playing a role in enhanced sharing. On the Huffington Post, social sharing modules occupy the right margin, using-up almost as much space as content itself.

These broad tendencies are just 3 among many others (live video, the will of large media to globalize their audience, adaptive content taking into account the visitor’s navigation history …) Lessons for the media and budding journalists are plenty, but one in particular really drives the point home for me: Stéphane Distinguin urges journalists to become decathletes rather than sprinters, by which he means to broaden the range of their abilities (photography, video shooting and editing, programming, data analysis …), and to scan the environment in search of untapped niches such as hyper-local information.

So, where does this leave PR pros? What should they take home from this day? Evidently, providing rich content (pictures, videos, slide shows …) has become essential to be notices. But I also think that they should follow closely the propagation, on social media, of their own releases and of the articles written about them, a practise that seems very seldom a priority in the industry. Obviously, this can be a chore but media monitoring is there to help.

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