Good questions trigger conversations


A few days ago, I wrote about the ever same questions some European media journalists keep asking me.

Lina Timm, a German journalist, saw my post and responded here on Medium: “Dear @wblau, I got some new questions for you”.

Thank you, Lina. Here are my answers. I have marked your questions in bold.

While I don’t always agree with some of their underlying assumptions, all of your questions seem to assume that journalism has a strong digital future and you focus on solutions rather than on doom, which is truly refreshing.

1. “When do we start to combine the possibilities of digital journalism with the needs of the user?”

I have to confess, the word ‘we’ in journalism makes me suspicious. Who is ‘we’ in journalism? And has there ever been such as thing as ‘the user’?
I don’t want to dodge your question simply by deconstructing it, but I think it expresses the same kind of ‘group think’ that lies at the heart of so many media journalists’ insistence on treating the media as an industrial-age monolith.
As an example, I can’t tell you how often I’ve been explaining either the very successful business model we have created for my last employer Zeit Online or The Guardian’s strategy to not install a paywall, only to be told by the interviewer that these were not feasible strategies. Why not feasible? Because they couldn’t be applied to journalism ‘as a whole’, or — if the interviewer was more honest — they couldn’t be applied to their own little trade publication as well.
Of course, you have point, though. Many sites and apps of legacy newspapers are still stuck in the age of broadcasting and mass media, in their design and complete lack of personalization, as well as with their editorial proposition.
At The Guardian, we are currently thinking about how to provide our users with a more personalized, more relevant experience without ever hiding the full width and depth of the Guardian’s journalism from them. This could be a personalized experience based on your known topical preferences or also just an acknowledgement of what you have already read or seen during your last visit. If you have read the report about a breaking news event in the morning and come back to our site or app two hours later, why are we still showing this report to you as our most prominent story, instead of acknowledging that you personally have read that report already and would be better served now if we visually emphasize the related comment or analysis piece to you?
Another hypothesis for an unsatisfied user need is what I would call the ‘wikipedia gap’. In any given breaking news situation, we observe the same dilemma: We create world-class live blogs and also produce fully written articles, then we produce comment and analysis pieces, often also explanatory interactives and, of course, videos. As soon as this massive breaking news event has been unfolding for a day or two, though, it becomes increasingly difficult for readers who are new to that event, to still get an overview. The live blog mostly tells them about the latest developments. The news summary article they land in might be outdated or only sum up the most recent developments, not the event’s history. Beyond the live-blog and the news summaries, they might stumble upon the related topics page, which then throws the newsroom’s complete output at them, in reverse chronological order.
Assuming we are already on day four of an unfolding massive story, who has the time now to read through several and often overlapping stories just to get a quick grasp of what happened and how that specific story began?
By that time, the number one search result for this news event’s main search terms (try ‘Charlie Hebdo shooting’) is no longer the product of a news organisation, but typically a Wikipedia entry. And don’t get me wrong: I admire Wikipedia and think it is one of journalism’s unsung heroes or heroines. What this phenomenon might highlight, though, is that there could be an unfulfilled user need during and after large breaking news events for a permanently updated explainer text instead of us expecting our readers to read dozens of mostly overlapping texts before they can form a cohesive understanding of what happened. Such a permanently updated reference article might neither win you a journalism award, nor be welcomed by your SEO team or your social team. But your readers might like it because it gives them an easier entry point into stories that have been unfolding for a while already. And, ideally, this could be done in a way that is complementary to what Wikipedia has to offer. Most likely, though, it would have to be shorter than that. (Yes, Vox’ card stacks are a good experiment in that direction, but I haven’t seen that work well for breaking news situations and don’t find that approach a lot more time efficient or informative than Wikipedia.)
If these kinds of examples express what you meant with ‘combining the the possibilities of digital journalism with the needs of the user?”, I agree with you in that we are still at the beginning of exploring what that could mean. The insistence of most newsrooms on producing fully written articles on each topic instead of also providing highly time-efficient bullet points for the many news items where no narrative is needed, should be another field for experiments.

2. When do journalists start to value what their users want?

I am not sure that is a fair assessment. And, again, nothing is as misleading for a news organization as assuming there was such a thing as ‘users’ or ‘the average user’.
I see many digital news organization that are in constant conversations with some of their users about their journalism as well as about its presentation. At The Guardian, we couldn’t have built our new sites without constant a/b-testing of our design hypotheses, without on-site interviews, personal meetings with readers in different countries and without the more than 140.000 pieces of structured user feedback before even launching the new site. What helped us a lot in that process is to segment our readers into at least four degrees of loyalty, measured by how often they visit us per month. It was striking to study the different responses of these these four groups to our various design changes.

Our new membership program also aims at building a much more permanent and mutual relationship between our readers and our newsrooms in London, New York and Sydney and we are certainly not the only news organization thinking in that direction.

Yes, some chief editors still ignore or actively discredit data evidence as ‘un-journalistic’ or confuse being data-informed with click-baiting or view personal meetings with readers as pr-obligations instead of learning opportunities, but arguing with these types of leaders in the year 2015 mostly proves to be a waste of time. If they just ignore it, your organization still has a chance as long as you find other allies. If they actively discredit looking at usage data or at direct user contributions, though, you might rather want to move on.

3. How can we better use the texts, videos and Periscope-streams,
people provide us for free?

First of all by, by coming to a very clear and joint understanding within your news organization why you would want to use material that has been provided by your readers, users, viewers. I have visited many news organizations in recent years and often asked them as simply as possible about their reasons for working with user-generated material. Typically, I was given one of these three answers, sorted by their frequency of appearance:
a. ‘To show that we are approachable and that we don’t think we are the only experts in town. It is just the thing to do these days.’
b. ‘To augment our own material with the occasional story that professional journalists would never have thought of themselves.’
c. ‘For a professional news organisation, it is simply impossible to be competitive without constantly listening for user-generated or user-monitored breaking news signals and without being world-class in verifying and falsifying any type of user generated material we can find online or are being told about by our readers.’
I think you have to first come to this kind of internal agreement about ‘why’ you would want to work more closely with your readers, before you can address your initial question of ‘how’ to do it best. Otherwise you risk ending up with your developers working on algorithmic news-signal detection tools or training the ever same colleagues in social media verification, while some of your most influential editors still question the very existence of your basic comment-threads. I’d also question your notion that ‘people provide’ material ‘for free’, just because most news organisation don’t pay money for usable material or story hints. There always needs to be a social exchange of some kind and news organisations need to be very clear about what it is users hope for in their interactions with newsrooms, especially if no money is being paid. At Zeit Online, I made sure we plant a tree for each reader-article we published and slowly grew a forest outside of Berlin. Simply as a gesture of appreciation.

4. Most journalists don’t have a clue about coding. How can we make journalists and coders understand each other better?

I’d say start by making sure they even know each other and — ideally — sit right next to each other, most especially if they are already working on the same project. Many legacy news organisations have gone through agonising ‘change processes’, just to increase collaboration between their commercial and their editorial teams. Breaking down the barriers between developers and editors a few years earlier might have done more for their economic survival. “Learning to code”, however, is a vast concept. News organisations wouldn’t be in such harsh competition with tech firms for the best coders, if professional coding was something most of us could just learn on the side and during our day jobs. This is why it is fatal for traditional newsrooms to treat their coders as some kind of digital service personnel instead of realizing that many developers who choose to work for news organizations could just as well be described as highly specialized journalists. In the case of the Guardian, our developers are as idealistic, as politically informed and passionate and as well-educated as our editors and reporters.
And to put it more simply: Give one of these two at least a try, will you?
Code Academy or Code.org.

5. Why (the hell) do so many young journalists still want to write
the title story of a print (!) magazine?

Why (the hell) would you even care? Let them. If they have contempt for digital journalism, view it as your competitive advantage and enjoy it while it lasts. And print is a beautiful, delightful medium. It won’t go away. May it always exist, just not stand in the way of progress.

6. And last: In which medium should we tell our stories?

In the one that matches your individual skills and passion, conveys your story or idea the best and is best suited to reach your viewers or readers, ideally while making money.

I share your interest in how to express a story in video, audio, text or interactive, but I am currently even more interested in rather catering to our readers’ dramatically different time budgets than to the different regions of the human brain.

The probably biggest disconnect between newspaper sites and their readers is currently not rooted in the journalists’ choice of medium, but in so many journalists’ complete disregard for how little time most readers are willing or able to spend with their journalism. Spending small fortunes on award-winning long-reads or long video documentaries without also providing accompanying short versions is either negligent or elitist.

And to David Tvrdon, who posted these questions in the comment thread below Lina’s questions:

  1. How do you encourage “print-first” journalists to care for online?
    I have met very traditional print journalists who became digital trail blazers, mostly by realizing how their own careers could benefit from embracing the net. Strangely, though, they seem to be a small minority. On a personal level, I would always focus on the aspect of how a colleague’s personal career could flourish by becoming more digitally skilled and curious. Institutionally, though, I would be more strategic. This change from being print or broadcast-driven to being primarily or solely digital is so much more than just a change of workflows or business models. It poses such a fundamental confrontation with one’s own professional identity that it has to be led directly by your chief editor as a role model. If that is not the case, you might be wasting your time. If you are the chief editor yourself, lead by example and never seize to ask supposedly ‘stupid questions’ in front of everyone, as this encourages your team to learn with you. If your colleagues feel they can’t ask questions and can’t reveal their ignorance, your newsroom can’t learn.
  2. How do you embrace a care-for-metric attitude?
    Obviously, that is still a difficult one in most news organizations, but here are some things I have seen work quite well: Make the day-to-day reporting and training for key metrics a genuine editorial task and part of the newsrooms routine, including your newsroom conferences. Make sure your senior editorial team can explain a small set of key metrics to the rest of the team without your help. Ask for a weekly slot in your team meetings to highlight interesting phenomena around a small set of key metrics each week, ideally phenomena that highlight ‘hidden champions’ and encourage your colleagues to use your data tools on their own. Example: Tell your colleagues about that story that seems to have tanked in regards to your main metrics such as page views, session time or social shares, but that did wonders in regards to the percentage of readers who set up user-accounts in order to comment. Acknowledge frequently that most of the commonly used metrics in digital publishing have been shaped from a commercial and not a journalistic point of view and that we are still in the the infancy stages of measuring the success of our journalism. Tell them about the emerging field of developing journalistic impact metrics. Make sure your editorial team and your commercial or product team share the same set of key metrics. If they don’t, keep nagging them about agreeing on a joint set of key metrics until they want to shoot you. When they are short of shooting you, pause it for a few days. Then keep nagging again.
  3. What do you think about native advertising and what is The Guardian’s standpoint?
    The Guardian frequently publishes branded content or ‘native ads’, labels them accordingly and uses a different type-face for these texts. Each of these texts has an explainer link ‘about this content’ with more information about the nature of the relationship between the Guardian and its client. Example: http://www.theguardian.com/rolex-partner-zone/2014/dec/03/rolex-entries-2016-enterprise-awards. I think that the revenue from this kind of branded content can help news organizations in their transition towards becoming fully digital, as long as it is absolutely clearly labelled so that readers always know where a piece of content is coming from. In the longer view, though, and given the size of organization we want to support financially, I sense much greater opportunities in proving the true impact of our display and video ads beyond their click-through rates and in transforming The Guardian into a membership organisation.
    Obviously, though, this is my personal view and not the official Guardian view for which you have to ask our incoming Editor-in-Chief and our incoming CEO.

Every single one of Lina’s and David’s questions could be turned into a day-long discussion. What I found refreshing is how different they were from the steady stream of negative questions so many European media journalists still tend to ask.

To expect the digital practitioners to be apologetic for not having all the answers might make the legacy media journalists feel like they are doing their job of being critical and hard-hitting. If media journalism is supposed to also have a catalyst function, though, in surfacing possible new solutions, it would help if there were many more media journalists out there who are willing to embrace ambiguity and open to being less nostalgic about the past.