The Future of the Newsroom — Tow Center, Columbia University

Whoever said journalism is dead has clearly never met with Claire Wardle, Research Director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Here, innovation is the lifeblood of the work that students and faculty produce each day.

From the moment we stepped into the World Room of Pulitzer Hall, it was clear to see that journalism was not only still alive, but thriving. In the same room where the Pulitzer Prizes are awarded to some of the best in the business each year, Wardle made a case that change in what we call “journalism” does not equal dissolution of it.

These days, what qualifies as journalism is always in flux. With new technology emerging what feels like every day, publications have great incentive to either get on board or get left behind. As Wardle put it, “you can’t just sit back on your laurels.”

Learning to embrace social media and investing in innovation is more imperative than ever. Many platforms function as their very own publishers. Channels like Snapchat are now in the business of content creation, as well as distribution, and are nibbling at the corners of what most consumers only learned from traditional news in the past.

With the internet littered with click-bait articles and viral videos, it is vital for publications to consider their ability to be timely to emerge above the digital noise. This is why media outlets like the Associated Press have begun to experiment with computational journalism. A terrifying prospect to many seasoned reporters, more automatically created articles does not in fact pose a threat to these jobs. Instead, it offers the possibility that simpler articles pertaining to sports scores and quarterly earnings reports, could be uploaded immediately to allow for punctuality and yet more time to investigate and report for other articles.

Engaging in new tech and social media has benefits in areas that print journalism does not. The availability of metrics and analytics that are available via social channels allows for an unprecedented amount of information on an audience. Now, it is entirely possible to understand a reader’s interests, engagement, and how to better serve them.

One of the most difficult pills to swallow in the world of digital journalism is what to do with mobile. So many people who actively engage with these mediums do so while commuting, in doctor’s offices, or on the road. In other words, on a smart phone. While seamless optimization remains a struggle for some publications, the power of mobile cannot be overstated. Citizen journalism is thought by many to mean the downfall of journalists and gate-keeping. However, this is increasingly being harnessed for positive effect by empowering smartphone users to share the video content that they accumulate. This allows a new kind of solutions journalism wherein a wider audience may experience certain issues that otherwise may not be covered through amateur video.

Citizen journalism in video is not the only stride being made in the video world. There is a strong push for using augmented reality, virtual reality, and 360 degree videos to cover important news events. In addition to those excited by the potential to increase empathy through these videos, there are doubts about how ethical this can be and if it is too exclusive, given its barrier to access through expensive equipment. Though these projects are new and exciting to experiment with, publications must consider the potential risks associated with diving into these mediums.

Another topic in the ethical gray area surrounds native advertising. Journalists across the board currently struggle with how to monetize in the new world of digital journalism. Sponsored posts or videos are less intrusive and aggressive than pop-ups and evade the ad blocker. Yet on the same note, is it ethical to package a sponsorship as true, unbiased reporting? This is one of the questions that journalistic institutions are grappling with and attempting to determine where they may fall.

Just as the days of telegraphs and printing presses gave way to emails and digital printing, journalism is in a stage of transition. At Columbia, journalism students are brought up in this emerging digital environment. Wardle put it best: “journalism is not in a vacuum, it’s affected by the world we live in and that’s a good thing.”