Digital #storytelling: the next step in digital transformation

How do you recognise solid digital journalism? A good web-based story is difficult to consume when you print it out.

Recently, I read an interesting post written by Joyce Barnathan, the president of the International Center for Journalists, about her impressions after attending some high-profile journalism conferences. She wrote that being a journalist of the new era is not only about posting photos, tweeting or sharing stories.

We’re also redefining the rules of news writing​ and narrative journalism.

I couldn't agree more.

However, my second thought was that this has been kind of obvious for a while now, especially since data journalism has been recognized by all mainstream media as an inseparable part of journalism.

Yet, I still see many newsrooms and journalists who have struggled with accepting this new era journalism.

Why? Because they are constrained by a print-first mindset.

The New York Times newsroom, 1942. By Marjory Collins [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It leads to a bizarre outcome. Creating a website that is populated with stories written originally for a paper-based publication is as pointless as trying to print out stories from the web. Yet, a lot of great and world-renowned news organisations still do it.

An example? The recently-sold Financial Times.

With the exception of their vibrant interactive desk along with some of the big reads (like this award-winning A world without water story), the FT website consists of articles written primarily for the newspaper, or stories written exclusively for the web, but in accordance with the traditional print storytelling rules.

So how should it work?

Digital storytelling starts with following common sense. For instance, if you write that something happened last week, link to the story that tells the reader about the event rather than describe it or, even worse, make the reader turn to a search engine each time she reads that phrase.

The next step is to adjust the format. Would a story you've just written be better off and reach more readers if it was a video instead of a plain text? Or a comprehensive data visualisation? Or maybe just a stand-alone graph would be enough? Perhaps it is so complex and viable that it has to be told across different journalism platforms? Well, the good news is, the internet has it all, you just have to think outside the box.

The last step in reaching digital storytelling excellence is to innovate in order to come up with new formats and new ways to tell a story. Because the trick is not to adopt all the new storytelling techniques and just stop there. That would simply be repeating the mistake of older hacks that can’t let go of print.

Instead, journalists have to be open to constant change in storytelling and look for new ways to tell their stories at least as intensely as they look for new stories to tell.

Content Magnet. By DigitalRalph on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Of course, content is king. But it is a shame to see so much great content being lost forever in the depths of the web because of poor packaging, mediocre social marketing, or because the story’s format has been chosen poorly.

Everyday, you can find hundreds of great stories on the web that might have reached a much bigger audience and influenced many more people if editors and journalists hadn’t been so reluctant to get in the digital-first mindset (this post by Wolfgang Blau, director of digital strategy at The Guardian, gives some interesting insights about how his newspaper manages to stay on the forefront of digital innovation).

My first-ever editor told me when I joined the industry 5 years ago that the media won’t change as long as managing editors and editors-in-chief will come from a print-first background. If he’s right, we have to wait a few more years for the real change to happen.

Personally, I think it will go a bit faster. Media companies increasingly hire more people who specialise in digital or data journalism. And companies that lag behind or think that the revolution in media is over, will lose their ground faster than we think.

Just look at the Washington Post, which just a few years ago was as prominent as the New York Times. Nowadays, the brand lost ground to the likes of Politico and some millennials have already forgotten about its existence (and I can’t remember the last time I read something from the Washington Post. Oh, wait, I remember: it was the day when the New York Stock Exchange halted trading. It’s also worth noting that this was reported by the newspaper’s intern).

We’re just at the beginning of the story, Joyce Barnathan wrote in the post that I mentioned earlier.

Indeed, we are. And the possibilities that the web gives the media are unlimited, contrary to print, radio and, in fact, all other formats. Isn't that enough for an average hack to get excited?