The future of Digital Journalism

Photo: Sascha Poflepp

Photo: Sascha Poflepp

The number one question (well, after the age old ‘are papers dead yet?’) at York Alumni Association’s Digital Journalism Debate last Wednesday was: How do you remain responsive to your users as the number of devices people consume news on increases?

This was one of three key points that Robin Pembrooke, Head of Product at BBC News & Weather Online wanted us to consider in a dimly lit cellar of Holborn’s Truckles Winebar earlier this week…

For those who missed the great event with Robin, Mike Smith, the Home Editor of The Times and Malcolm Coles, Product Director at the Trinity Mirror, here’s what I learnt.

Mobile is where it’s at – but screens come in all different sizes

While TV has been the BBC’s fastest growing platform over the last five years due to an uptake in the Middle East and Africa, when the news of Margaret Thatcher’s death broke 50% of their traffic came from mobile devices – and mobile-driven traffic was even higher when Storm Jude shook the UK.

It’s not just about what device people are logging on to the news site with, but when that’s changing – as at the Trinity Mirrior newsgroup, Malcolm pointed out that the spike in mobile traffic is particularly noticeable on weekends.

“Every hour of every day on the weekend, more people access our site on a mobile device – but in the week it’s still desktops.”

The traditional lunchtime spike has also moved to the evening.

Harvard Law Bulletin imagines an "online journalist in legal peril" Photo: Justin Renteria

Harvard Law Bulletin imagines an “online journalist in legal peril” Photo: Justin Renteria

Picture the online journalist – what do you see?

Traditionally, if you asked someone to picture online journalism – the image they’d come up with was the rather mind-numbingly boring one of a journalist sitting at a computer, and indeed this was a problem Paul Bradshaw told students he faced during a lecture on online journalism (#cityOJ) when he met publishers to discuss what image he should put on his book.

But online journalism is produced and consumed using so many more devices than just computers today – and this is something that Robin jumped on on Wednesday night.

“We must be responsive to users regardless of device.”

This means putting just as much focus on how easy-to-read and comprehensive a news site is on many different sized screens – as what transfers well to a Blackberry may not transfer well to an iPad and vice versa.  And then there’s those who use their smart TVs to go online.

Will "bitesize" news take any inspiration from the BBC's very successful Bitesize revision sites?

Will “bitesize” news take any inspiration from the BBC’s very successful Bitesize revision sites?

News good enough to eat: snacking on “bitesize” chunks

Moving on to content, the BBC also wants to stream increasingly bitesize news stories that will be more user-friendly for a mobile audience who ‘snacks’ on news.

But I think there’s more to consider when thinking how news can be made more appealing to suit a reader’s convenience.

Malcolm highlighted the news spikes of the day – but what do people want to read at these times?  Does the evening audience cwtched up in bed with their tablet want different stories than those snacking on the headlines whilst throwing back their third coffee of the morning?

I think they do – and I’d stagger a guess that like those who read a book in bed, nighttime readers might be more open to the idea of long-form features than those on their daily commute.

Could we even stagger content in a categorised way – the news in the morning, sport at lunch, lifestyle in the evening?  It would probably be a complete disaster, as just as many lifestyle stories hit the most read lists in the morning as solid news, and lifestyle stories (particularly if they involve Justin Bieber or cats) are always good for a  first-thing-in-the-office share.  But it would be a cool experiment that might yield some interesting results.

Storify - a useful way to personalise the news? My colleague @AlishaRouse did a fab Spotify story on Storm Jude

Storify – a useful way to personalise the news? My colleague @AlishaRouse did a fab Spotify story on Storm Jude


Returning back to the debate, we learned it’s not just about personalising the news to a device, but also making the types of stories a user would be interested in more easily accessible.

On Twitter, users choose to follow people that interest them, so Robin suggested how about users having the option to follow particular stories?  They pick the topic – and then they get a stream of audio, video and textual content they can dip in and out of – all in one place.

I think this is a great idea – and could mean more people getting a much greater in-depth understanding of a continually unfolding story than if they just see the first splash.

If the BBC were to implement this idea, I only hope that some Facebook-style algorithm wouldn’t block me from seeing the other news available if it’s not seen as one of my ‘traditional’ preferences.

I say this, as one of the greatest joys about the traditional printed newspaper is that you can easily fall into reading something you’d never previously considered after being grabbed by the headline as you flick through.

Robin agreed that personalisation is not without its challenges – saying such a service has to be rolled out subtly as people do not like to be told what they should like, read or do.

“They have to be the ones to tell you what they want to follow”.

And what of the Caitlin Morans of the future?

Over at The Times, Mike said that online journalism did not present the same threat 24 hour news did when that was first introduced, but it has hit areas we may not first think of – for example, writers who could be great columnists like Caitlin Moran who do not have a traditional journalism background will not think to go to papers first in the future to tell their stories.

“The Caitlin Morans of the future will be blogging – they won’t be going to newspapers – there’s just so much more room to be witty online,” Mike added.

How we tell news is also changing

When the motion to invade Syria was being debated in the Houses of Parliament and across the pond in Congress, how many people were clinging to their papers reading the leaders in The Times and The Telegraph advising that invading Syria was a ‘no no’?

Not a lot, I’m willing to bet.

However, overnight 150,000 people logged on to Trinity Mirror’s Us vs. Th3m to have a stab at guessing where Damascus was on a map.

Some people in the Houses of Parliament and the US Department of Defense even had a go…

Picture 8

and they were only a bit out…

Picture 9

It may not be the most scientific approach to telling the news but it does beg the question ‘should be we invading a country that we don’t even know where it is?’ more effectively than any newspaper editorial could.

This is just one of many interactive visualisation games Us vs Th3m produce every day – and it’s clearly engaging its audience.

Some of their posts like ‘How Northern are you?’ and ‘How much are you hated by the Daily Mail?’ (apparently only Michael Gove can get the perfect score, according to Malcolm) may not have such a solid news base but their success shows the site’s clearly touching a note with people in a big way – and if you can keep people coming back to a site, isn’t that half the battle in making your content profitable? I’d say that’s still the biggest challenge for news organisations in the digital world.


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