Social media ushered in a new era in visual journalism. Audiences were increasingly turning to new platforms to find news so formats had to be adapted. But a new force is also driving the transformation of visuals: mobile. Amanda Farnsworth from BBC News, Scott McKiernan of Zuma Press and Xavier Kronström Richard from Radio Canada Lab answered a few questions about the new standards set for visual journalism. Amanda and Scott will be speaking on the subject at the GEN Summit 2017 in Vienna, 21–23 June.

Clothilde Goujard
Jan 19, 2017 · 6 min read

In 2016, Pew Research Center studied 110 news outlets, and for 99 of them, unique visitors on mobile devices had outpaced unique visitors on desktops to their websites.

The rise of videos without sound but with captions highlights changing audience behaviors. People now watch quick videos during their daily commute and sound has become an annoyance. And news media are responding to these new needs. In an analysis of 303 online videos, the Reuters Institute found that 71% of them had a text overlay.

Amanda Farnsworth, the BBC’s visual editor has been working and thinking about transformations in her field since 2013. Her team has been experimenting with diverse formats. For example, in November 2016, the BBC introduced vertical videos on its mobile application. According to Farnsworth, 60% of traffic to BBC News is now mobile.

A BBC story on what it’s like to have the phone of a refugee in vertical format (was mainly shared on Facebook)

“Mobile has just a massive impact and we’ve had to readdress how we design, think mobile-first and how people consume news and visual news on mobile, and that includes on social media,” Farnsworth explains.

Even though vertical videos were dismissed at first as a fad, growing consumption of news on mobiles means formats are evolving.

“Two years ago, I think nobody was thinking about necessarily making those videos vertical but now there’s a lot of movement toward [them] simply because that’s how you generally hold your phone,” says Farnsworth.

But the shape of the video is not the only thing Farnsworth’s team cares about. They monitor and analyze many aspects of their experiments with their audience: length, sound, subtitles, and visual agenda.

AJ+ which makes short, sound off, captioned videos with strong visual stories

Radio-Canada, the French-speaking side of Canada’s public broadcaster, created a specific team to think about the future of news, develop new strategies, and experiment with new formats. Xavier Kronström Richard, innovation coordinator at RC Lab,analyzes media trends.

More than simple visual containers of information, news outlets have to think of formats as a way to connect with their audiences, speak and create a “mobile language”.

“We are in a time of creation where we are still adapting, and continuing to be interested in how we can speak this language. We are reaching a maturity in 2017 and we’re going to be able to create our own original content outside of the strict influence of social media,” he says.

But CEO and founder of press agency Zuma Press Scott McKiernan doesn’t believe media outlets are completely embracing new formats and using them irregularly just because they’re “trendy”. He says:

“I don’t think newspapers, magazines, and agencies have taken advantage of the full potential of the mobile and social media world for using photography, journalism and a combination of the two.”

In the current media ecosystem, developing a strong and efficient visual strategy in journalism at the moment is resource intensive. With many different applications and new formats, media companies have increasingly realized that “a ‘one size fits all video’ is no longer an option,” according to a Reuters Institute report about online video published in 2016.

At the BBC, Farnsworth’s team is well aware of this need to have a diversified and flexible visual approach.

“When we have a big project, we always think about how we are going to do that on mobile. Is there a particular graph that we can animate that will work really well on social media? Is there a key piece of video, a key story that we can pull out from that bigger piece of work that will actually work much better on Facebook or Instagram?” she says.

National Geographic using Instagram for square-shaped photos and texts

But this takes time, money and people. The BBC’s strength is that with its long history of broadcast journalism, it has accumulated expertise in understanding the visual aspect of news. And to better adapt to the mobile era, Farnsworth decided to “bring much closer relationship within this department between the people designing graphics for [their] flagship news bulletin on BBC1 and online journalists and designers.” She says it paid “massive dividends.”

She sees more similarities between visuals that work for television and mobile, than previously when audiences were getting their news mostly on desktop.

“In basic terms, your text needs to be bigger [on mobiles] than it does on a desktop environment and that’s the same for TV. You can’t have too many words on the screen, your design needs to be visually arresting very quickly because in a TV environment people are not necessarily 100% focused on TV. And then, of course, they get one chance to access the content and this in a way is quite similar to the behaviors of people on mobiles where people flip through and scroll through very quickly.”

While media companies are now spending much of their effort focusing on social media in a mobile environment, it is not clear if platforms like Instagram or Snapchat will exist in a few years.

A Snapchat story by the Hindustan Times using filters and lenses to tell a complex story of human trafficking survivors:

Messaging applications in particular are on the rise. More than 42 billion messages and 250 million videos were sent over Whatsapp daily, and that was in early 2016.

At Radio-Canada,Kronstöm Richard considers messaging applications with the development of bots and one-on-one communication, as the next trend to prepare for.

Conversations punctuated by light videos and photos, emojis, stickers, and GIFs will become even more relevant, thinks Kronström Richard.

But the visual dynamic we are seeing today is surely here to stay.

“We live in a very visual world. We need to make sure that our news is visually rich or have rich visual narratives,” Farnsworth concludes.

A GIF used by Now This about protest in France on its Tumblr

Media mentioned in this article: BBC, Radio-Canada, Zuma Press


Michael Blanding, interviewing Heather Chaplin (Journalism + Design program at the New School)

“ […] Digital technology and increased competition have led journalists to employ more creative techniques to capture viewers’ attention, including multimedia storytelling, stylized visuals, and interactive techniques to create a more personal, emotional experience.” (Nieman Storyboard, 28 March 2016)

Barbara Bufkens—World Press Media

“Our commitment to visual journalism and storytelling is driven by the belief that people deserve to see their world and express themselves freely. Freedom of information, freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech are more important than ever, and quality visual journalism is essential for the accurate and independent reporting that makes these freedoms possible.” (The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 December 2016)

Scotty Bara—Cronkite School

“Journalism today is about the power of the visual image and experiencing the world around you. It’s a stepping-stone for storytelling, and these experiences are going to shape the way we view news.” (Arizona State University, 20 January 2016)

Quotes brought to you by Storyzy
Vertical videos used at BBC News

Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) is a community committed to sustainable journalism and media innovation. GEN runs different programmes: Editors Lab, Startups for News, and the Data Journalism Awards.

Clothilde Goujard

Written by

Freelance journalist. International politics/ women’s issues/ digital news and storytelling. Avid reader and fan of VR.

Global Editors Network

The Global Editors Network (GEN) is a community committed to sustainable journalism and media innovation. GEN runs different programmes: Editors Lab, Startups for News, and the Data Journalism Awards.

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