The future of news is not what you think and no, you might not be getting ready for it the right way

Editors, reporters and, anyone in news today: how prepared are you for what is coming? Really. There is a lot of talk right now on new practices and new technologies that may or may not shape the future of journalism but are we all really properly getting ready? Esra Dogramaci, member of the Data Journalism Awards 2017 jury and now working as Senior Editor on Digital Initiatives at DW in Berlin, Germany, thinks we are not. The Data Journalism Awards 2017 submission deadline is on 10 April.

Esra Dogramaci, Senior Editor on Digital Initiatives at DW, Photo: Krisztian Juhasz

Before joining DW, Esra Dogramaci worked at the BBC in London and Al Jazeera English, amongst others. She discusses here the preconceived ideas people have about the future of journalism and how we might be getting it all wrong. She also shares some good tips on how to better prepare for the journalism practices of the future as well as share with us her vision of how the world of news could learn from the realm of television entertainment.

What do you think most people get wrong when describing the future of journalism?

There are plenty of people happy to ruminate on the future of journalism — some highly qualified such as the Reuters Institute and the Tow Center who make annual predictions and reports based on data and patterns while others go with much less than that. Inevitably, people get giddy about technology — what can we do with virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), artificial intelligence (AI), personalisation (not being talked about so much anymore), chatbots, the future of mobile and so on. However with all this looking forward to where journalism is headed (or rather how technology is evolving and, how can journalism keep pace with it), are we actually setting ourselves and journalism students up with all that is needed for this digital future? I think the answer is no.

What is, according to you, a more adequate description (or prediction) of the future of news?

If we’re talking about a digital future, the journalists of tomorrow are not equipped with the digital currency they will need.

Technology definitely matters but it’s not so useful when you don’t have people who understand it or can build and implement appropriate strategy to bridge journalism in a digital age. Middle or senior management types for instance, are less likely to know how to approach Snapchat, which they would be less likely to use, than a high school teenager who is using it as a social sharing tool or their primary source of news.

So if we aren’t actually:

1. Listening to our audience and knowing who they are and how they use these technologies, and

2. Bringing in people who know how to use these tools that speak to and with the audience,

…the efforts are going to be laughable at worst and dismissed at best.

In essence, technology and those who know how to use, develop and iterate it go together. That’s the future of news. We should be looking forward with technology, but we’ve also got to look back at the people coming through the system that will inherit and step into the – hopefully relevant – foundations we’re building now.

“Are we actually setting ourselves and journalism students up with all that is needed for this digital future?”

When looking at the evolution of journalism practices over the past few years, which ones fascinate you the most?

There are two things that stand out. The first is analytics and the second is the devolution of power, both points are interrelated.

Data analytics have really transformed non-linear journalism. Its instantly measurable, helping people make editorial decisions but also question and understand why content you thought would perform doesn’t. Data allows us to really understand our audience, and come up with content that not just resonates with them but how to package content that they will engage with. For instance a website audience is not going to be the same as your TV audience (TV is typically older and watches longer content but again the data will tell specifics), so clipping a TV package and sticking it on Facebook or YouTube isn’t optimal and suggests to your audience that you don’t understand these platforms and more importantly, them. They will go to another news provider that does.

An example of this was a project where it was traditionally assumed [in one of my previous teams] that the audience was very interested in Palestinian-Israeli conflict and so a lot of stories were delivered about it. However, we discovered through the numbers, on a consistent basis, that the audience wasn’t as interested as assumed, rather people were more into the conflicts in Syria, Yemen as well as Morocco and Algeria stories. These stories and audiences may not have traditionally registered on top of the editorial agenda because of what was historically thought to be in the audiences interest, but our data was suggesting we needed to pay more attention to the coverage in these areas.

Now, that being said, it’s still stunning to see how little analytics are used day to day. There still seems to be a monopoly on the numbers rather than integration into newsrooms. There are a plethora of tools available in making informed editorial or data decisions but generally editors don’t understand them or follow metrics that are not useful because they don’t know how to interrogate the data, or we hear things like ‘I’m an editor, I’ve been doing this for x years, I know better.’

Fortunately though, about 80–90% of editors I find are keen to understand this data-driven decision-making world and once you sit down and explain things, they become great advocates. Ian Katz at BBC Newsnight, Carey Clark at BBC HardTalk are two editors who embody this.

The second area is devolving power. The best performing digital teams are when not all decision-making is consolidated at the top, and you really give people time and space to figure out problems, test new ideas without the pressure always to publish. That’s a very different model to traditional hierarchical or vertical journalism structures. Its an area of change and letting go of power. But empowering the team empowers leaders as well.

An example of this is a team I worked with where all decisions and initiatives went through a social media editor. As a result, there was a bottleneck, and frustration for things not being done and generally being late to the mark on delivering stories and being relevant on platform as competitors were overtaking. What we did is decentralise control — we asked the team what platforms they’d like to take responsibility for (in addition to day to day tasks) and together came up with objectives and a proposition to deliver on those. The result? Significant growth across the board, increase in engagement but perhaps most importantly, a happier team. That’s what most people are looking for: recognition, responsibility, autonomy. If you can keep your team happy, they are going to be motivated and the results will follow.

Global Headaches: the 10 biggest issues facing Donald Trump, by CNN

Do you have any stories in mind that represent best what you think the future of newsmaking will look like?

CNN digital did this great Global Headaches project ahead of the US elections last year.

The project was on site (meaning that traffic was coming to the site and not a third party platform), made for mobile which would presumably reflect an audience coming mainly from mobile, used broadcast journalists and personalities as well as regular newsgathering, with an element of gamification. Each scenario had an onward journey which then takes your reader out of the game element and into the story.

Example from the “onward journey” with the CNN “Global Headaches” project

This isn’t a crazy high tech innovation but it is something that would have been much harder to pull off say 5 years ago. This example is multifaceted and making use of the tools we have available today in a smart way. It demonstrates that CNN can speak to the way their audience is consuming content while fulfilling its journalistic remit.

Examples like this doesn’t mean we should be abandoning long form text for instance and going purely for video driven or interactive stories. The Reuters Institute found last year (in their report The Future of Online News Video) that there is oversaturation of video in publishing and that text is still relevant. So, I would caution against throwing the text baby out with the bathwater, which then comes down to two things:

  1. Know your audience and do so by bringing analytics into the newsroom (it’s still slightly mind boggling the number of newsrooms who do not have any analytics in the editorial process)
  2. Come up with a product that you love and that works. The best of these innovations are multidisciplinary and do something simple using the relevant tools we have, that are accessible today. There’s no use investing in a VR project if the majority of your audiences lack the headsets to experience it.

Do you think news organisations are well equipped for this digital future?

Yes and no. There are the speedboats like Quartz, AJ+, NowThis, Vox, who can pivot quickly and innovate versus the bigger media tankers that turn very slowly. One question I get asked quite a bit is “what’s the most important element in digital change”. The answer is leadership. There needs to be someone(s) who understands, supports and pushes change, otherwise everyone down the ranks will continue to struggle and face resistance.

I truly believe in looking at the people who are on the ground, rolling up their sleeves and getting the work done, trying, failing, succeeding, and who keep persevering — versus always deferring to editors who have been in place for say 10 years to lead the way. Those people in the trenches are the ones we should be shining the light on and listening to. They are much closer to the audience and can give you usable insights that also go beyond numbers.

If I could name a few, people like Carol Olona, Maryam Ghanbarzadeh at the BBC, Alaa Batayneh or Fatma Naib, at Al Jazeera, Jacqui Maher at Conde Nast, need to be paid attention to. You may not see them at conferences or showcased much but by having people like them in place, news organisations are well equipped for a digital future.

Do you see some places in the world (some specific organisations maybe?) that are actually doing better than others on that front?

The World Economic Forum wouldn’t traditionally be associated as being a digital media organisation, but a few years ago they started to invest in social media and develop an audience that normally would not be interested in them. They take data and make it relevant and accessible for low cost, bite size social consumption.

Take this recent video for example:

Your brain without exercise, a video by the World Economic Forum

and also this related one:

Best of 2016 social video by the World Economic Forum

There is also this NYT video of Simone Biles made ahead of the 2016 summer Olympics which then has the option of taking you to an onward site journey.

The Financial Times hasn’t been afraid of digital either. You see them taking interesting risks which might go over a lot of people’s heads but the point is they’re trying. Like in their project “Build your own Kraft Heinz takeover”.

Then there are the regular suspects — AJ+ isn’t trying to do everything, they’re trying to be relevant for a defined audience on the platforms that audience uses. Similarly, Channel 4 News isn’t pumping out every story they do on social, but deliberately going for emotionally charged stories rather than straight reporting as well as some play with visualising data.

What would you like to see more of in newsrooms today which would actually prepare staff better for what’s coming?

When you’re hiring new staff, assign them digital functions and projects rather than putting them on the traditional newsroom treadmill. A lot of organisations have entry level schemes and this could easily be incorporated into that model. That demonstrates that digital is a priority from the outset. You could also create in house lightning attachments, say a six-week rotation at the end of which you’re expected to deliver something ready for publishing, driven by digital. My City University students were able to come up with a data visualization in less than an hour, and put together a social video made on mobile in 45 minutes (social or mobile video wasn’t even on the course but I snuck it in). Six weeks in a newsroom is plenty of time for something substantial.

Also, have the right tools in place and ensure that everyone is educated on the numbers. Reach and views for instance get thrown around a lot- they are big easy numbers to capture and comprehend, but we need to make a distinction between what is good for PR versus actionable metrics in the newsroom. As more people clue into what matters, I do think (and we see in certain places like Newswhip for instance) where success is based on engagement, interactions and watchtime rather than views, impressions or reach.

Finally and obviously, its devolution of power and more risk taking. Make people better by empowering them — that means carve out the time and space to experiment without the pressure to deliver or publish. When you are continually driving staff against deadlines, creativity suffers. Fortunately there are so many third party tools and analytics that will very quickly tell you what’s working and what’s not, contributing to a much more efficient newsroom freeing up valuable time to think and experiment. Building multi disciplinary teams is a good step in this direction. DW is experimenting with a “lab like” concept bringing together editorial, technical and digital folks in an effort to bring the best of all worlds together and see what magic they come up with.

From your experience teaching social and digital journalism at City University London, what can you say about the way the younger generation of journalists is being trained for the future? Do they realise what’s at stake?

At the beginning of term, I heard quite a few students say that digital didn’t matter, it wasn’t “real journalism” and that they were taking the class merely because it was perceived as an “easy pass”. That’s because the overall coursework, emphasized magazine and newspaper journalism. At the end of the term, and almost on a weekly basis since, my former students write to me about either digital projects they have done, digital jobs they are going for or how something we went over in the class has led to another opportunity.

There remains a major emphasis on traditional broadcast journalism — TV, radio, print, but very little for digital. That’s not something to fault students on. Digital is changing constantly but teaching staff mainly reflect the expertise of the industry, and that expertise is traditional. While there are a lot of digital professionals, it does not come close to the level of expertise and experience currently on offer at institutions training the next journalist generation. That being said organisations like Axel Springer have journalism academies where all of their instructors, are working full time in media and can translate the day to day relevance into the classroom. That’s more of the kind of thing we need to have.

The students I think do realise what’s at stake because a lot of those journalism jobs they’re applying for all require some level of digital literacy. Sure everyone might watch a YouTube video but what happens when an Editor asks you why a news video has been uploaded and monetised by other users elsewhere. Would you know what to do?

What could be done to improve the educational system in the UK and beyond? Simply make journalism courses more digitally focussed?

There is nothing that will compel places to change but reputation. If students are leaving institutions because what they are learning is not preparing them to meet the demands of the industry they’re choosing to go into, word will spread sooner than later. There will surely be visionary institutions who ‘get it’ and adapt, some are there already.

‘Smart’ places will build in digital basics so students can have the confidence to hit the ground running. I see this in a lot of digital job requirements. It’s a given that anyone starting in journalism in 2017 has basic social media literacy. Beyond that everything is a bonus — how can you file from a mobile phone, can you interpret complex data and tell a story with it. Then, are you paying attention to analytics?

As Chris Moran (Guardian) had pointed out:

“staff blame the stupid internet for low page views on a piece…but credit the quality of the journalism when one hits the jackpot.”

We need a much more sophisticated understanding beyond yes/no answers to points like these.

A lot of media houses have academies or training centres expected also to bridge digital gaps. The caution there is that the trainings they offer when it comes to things beyond CMS, uploading video, etc., is that other digital knowledge seem to fall in the “nice to know” rather than “you need this” category. The best thing is to find the in-house talents who know what they’re talking about and get them to lead the way.

Another recurrent question when talking about our digital future is the question of business models for news organisations. As the latter are under continual financial strain, you actually think we should get inspiration from the entertainment industry. Can you elaborate on this idea?

Yes. The entertainment industry always has a much larger creative capacity and funding so they are able to take more risks with less at stake. That’s where we should be looking and seeing what the obvious news applications could be rather than trying to build our own innovations all the time. Most news houses just cannot compete with entertainment budgets. Jimmy Fallon showcased Google Tilt brush in January 2016:

I then saw it in November 2016 at a Google News event but have yet to see anyone use it in a meaningful news application. It doesn’t necessarily mean that all these things will be picked up on, but it does mean we should keep a finger on the pulse of what’s possible. Matt Danzico, now setting up a Digital News Studio at NBC is in a unique position. He’s in the same building as Late Night, SNL, and others. That means he has access to all the funky things entertainment is coming up with and can think about news applications for it.

Similarly, how can news organisations think about teaming up with Amazon or Netflix for instance and start to make their content more accessible? These media giants have the capacity to push creative boundaries and invest, and news organisations have their journalistic expertise to offer in that relationship. That’s very relevant in this time of “fake news”.

You have recently been appointed Senior Editor of Digital at DW in Berlin. Can you tell us more about what this position entails and the type of projects you’ll be doing? How different is it from what you’ve done in the past at the BBC and Al Jazeera for example?

DW is in a position familiar to many broadcasters, and that is a slight shift away from linear broadcasting to a considerable foray into digital. The difference is that DW is not starting from zero, with plenty of good (and bad) examples around to learn from. The first thing is to set a good digital foundation — getting the right tools in house and bringing people along on the digital journey — in a nutshell increasing literacy and comfort with digital. Once that is done I think you’ll see a very sharp learning curve and a lot more ambitious digital projects and initiatives coming from DW.

We’re very lucky that we have a new Editor in Chief, Ines Pohl and new head of news, Richard Walker, both infused with ideas and energy of making a great digital leap. Complementary to that we have a new digital strategy coming from the DG’s office which I’ve been involved with in addition to a new DW “lab like” concept, as I mentioned before. A lot of people might not know how big DW is — there are 30 language services and English is the largest of those, so getting all systems firing digitally is no small task.

Compared to BBC or AJ, the scope and scale of the task is of course much bigger. At AJ we had a lot of free range in the beginning because no one was doing what we did, at the BBC, there was much more process involved, less risk taking. Based on those experiences, DW is somewhere in the middle, a good balance. 2017 could be the year where stars align for DW. There are approximately 12 parliamentary or national elections in Europe and DW knows this landscape well. So bringing together the news opportunities, a willingness to evolve and invest in something new along with leadership that can really drive it, I think DW will be turning heads soon.


Deadline to the Data Journalism Awards 2017 is right round the corner! You have until 10 April 2017 to submit your project and get your work shortlisted as one of the top data journalism projects of 2016–2017!