If I Could Go Back In Time, This Is What I’d Tell Myself

Eight things I would've done differently if I’d known about the digital paradigm of journalism.

Data Killed The Journalistic Flux Capacitor Star?

This is not yet another contribution to the everlasting debate on The Death of Print Journalism. As far as I’m concerned, that debate will end when the last newspaper standing finally calls it quits. And that will happen, sooner or later.

At least if we’re talking about newspapers. I’m quite sure that longread storytelling, investigative journalism, and in-depth feature articles will survive TDoPJ and continually be distributed on printed media for some time.

But newspapers? No. The digital transformation is a fact. It’s happening, and it’s happening fast.

I mean, from print only to online first to mobile first – and, hopefully soon, to digital only – all within two thirds of my lifespan (I was 10 when news papers first started to populate the internet; now I’m 31).

And during my 15 active years in the Swedish news industry, not only the digital paradigm of journalism but also the enriched online social community has re-drawn the map completely.

Quite a lot of water has flowed under the bridge, to say the least.

So, what has been proved sustainable so far? Which ”truths” that were told back in the good ol’ days turned out to be nothing more than bad guesses and chimaeras?

Obviously, there’s a bunch of really ugly examples out there. If I had a flux capacitor to build my own DeLorean DMC-12 time machine with, I would travel back to the year 2K and tell myself to watch out for a few of them – and focus on what really matters. (Or more like, will matter, since it wouldn’t have happened yet.)

If I could turn back time, this is what I’d tell myself:

”Study programming, for crying out loud!!”
  • Living in the modern age of digital, not knowing code is a big disadvantage. And that’s not an exaggeration – since even the most basic gizmos we carry around everyday, or at the very least regularly rely on, can be altered through code, how could it ever be anything but a disadvantage to not be able to manipulate those gizmos if needed? In the soon-to-be digital only news world of the future, coding will be of much greater value than tweaking headlines or perfecting preambles (since that will be taken care of by text robots and algorithms anyway).
LESS is… less? I thought less was more!? Aaaaah, damn you World Wide Web Consortium!”
”It’s okay, I know you suck at illustrations and visualization. But to be honest, I don’t care – just learn how to do cool interactive graphics and get shit done!”
  • Have you heard of an online newsroom that’s not constantly nagging about interactive graphics and visual web presentations? No? Neither have I.
A dream in a dream in a dream in a…
”If anyone tells you that ‘web-tv is so lame’,’ and that ‘you shouldn’t bother’, please just ask that person to stop talking.”
  • Video killed the radio star, didn’t it? Well, after being left out in the cold for a decade or so, video is finally killing stars on the internet as well – thanks to smartphones, streaming, and social media. So what are you waiting for, kid? Start experimenting!
You know that the dots aren’s actually moving, right?
”If anyone tells you to become a print editor because ‘newsrooms are always on the lookout for print editors’ – just walk away. Fast.”
  • Newsrooms always being on the lookout for print editors was actually true in Sweden, right up until 2009–2010, when The Great Purge started. Nowadays, print editors are the first ones to go when news outlets are discharging staff every 2–3 years or so.
Run journo, run!
”If anyone tells you to become a web editor because ‘newsrooms are always on the lookout for web editors’ – just walk away. Fast. And never look back.”
  • This was also true, up until 2013–2014, when the news conglomerats operating in the Swedish news industry finally figured out that the digital transformation requires increased efficiency – not an increased amount of workers in the unpromised land of the nonsensical moving-teasers-up-and-down-on-a-front-page, endlessly-tweaking-headlines factory.
Online newsfloor sweatshop.
”Spend some time with your friend Excel. I know, I know. Excel is not the sparky friend you’d invite to the cool teenage parties. But on the other hand, those cool kids you so desperately want to hang out with won’t be around when the wind is blowing. Right?”
  • In the digital age of journalism, data is everything. In 2016, journalism isn’t even half as data-driven as it should be. That’s why we still call some journalists ”data journalists”, and consider their field of expertise ”data journalism.” Haha, that’s just outright silly, I know. But it’s true. A rough and kind of arbitrary estimate (since it’s my own, based purely on subjective presumptions instead of hardcore data) is that by 2020, all journalists will be ”data journalists”. In one way or another. Now, go ahead and study data analysis, statistics, XML or whatever, while I compose a separate Medium story on the topic ”Why All Journalists Are Data Journalists In 2020"!
You wouldn’t dare to question Obi, would you?
”Be prepared for anything, and move swiftly.”
  • We’ve already established the fact that a) no particular role or position in the newsroom should be taken for granted, and b) you shouldn’t listen to everything people tell you.

So, what should you do then?

For starters, you should rock the boat as much as possible. Because if you do, then not only do you train yourself in how to behave when encountering the unexpected, but you also promote yourself as a potential thought-leader. Well, as long as you rock the boat just enough, anyway. Otherwise, you risk having the boat capzised, making the whole crew soaked to the skin. Or drowned. And that wouldn't look well in your resume.

No, you should practice balancing the thin line of Variety versus Consistency.

Think of it as a tennis game: Roger Federer has all the sparkling firepower, the unpredictable serve, the blazing forehand, the poisonous slice, the decisive softness at the net, and the ability to change pace seemingly at random, throwing his opponents off guard. I.e, a strong arsenal containing a vast variety of weapons – but also vulnerabilities. It’s sort of an unwritten rule; if you’re really good at something, you’re bound to have a few exploitable weaknesses. However, that volatile variety made Federer the best player in the world back in the days.

Novak Djokovic, on the other hand, has only one really powerful weapon (his backhand, which is considered the best backhand in the entire history of the game), and isn’t exactly known for his varied game play — but he has few weaknesses. Djokovic’s main weapon is his consistency. He is good at many things, and bad at none. All summed up, that makes him the currently best player in the world.

It’s when these two types of players face each other that the real tennis magic happens. So far, not a single player has been able to merge these two playing styles, creating the perfect playing style – but everyone should constantly strive for it. Personally, if I had to choose just one over the other, I’d pick Djokovic’s set of skills 9 out of 10 times. That one time I’d go with Federer’s would be if I was absolutely certain that I could become the best in the world in a particular skill that will be attractive to publishers for the foreseeable future. Being the best headline-wrangler that has ever walked the face of the earth isn’t of much value if that’s the only skill you possess as a web editor.

And, for the love of dogs*, change your game plan when you’re losing.

Nover Djokerer?
”Get. Shit. Done. And get it done well.”
  • Don’t hesitate. Don’t stall. Don’t procrastrinate. Just get shit done, and do it well. If it’s not good, it’s not worth doing.
If it ain’t good, don’t do it at all…

That’s it, folks. The chance of me finding a flux capacitor and constructing an actual time machine is almost as great as the chances of August Strindberg rising from the dead and finally turning copper into gold.

But if I’m lucky, I’m able to help some journalist newbies who’re trying to get by in the rapidly and drastically changing world of journalism.

*I’m actually not a big fan of dogs. I’m more of a cat person.

Henrik Ståhl is a journalist with more than 15 years of experience, recently turned Product Owner at Bonnier News, working with the digital development of Dagens industri and Dagens Nyheter. In his spare time, he’s trying to learn programming. If you like this story, please hit the like button, and visit the Medium publication May The Code Be With Me!

And feel free to connect with me on Twitter, Steller, Anchor, Linkedin, and Talkshow. I’m always up for a good chat on journalism in general, and online journalism in particular.

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