Responsible Reporting Section 2 ‘The New Journalisms’: Chapter I

One section down, it’s two to go as we begin the second. The serialization of my ebook  Responsible Reporting: Field Guide for Bloggers, Journalists, and Other Online News Gatherers continues ahead of its release into the public domain. So far we have the Foreward and from Section 1, Chapters, I and II, III and IV, V and VI.

The section’s short introduction is explanation enough what to expect. However, let me remind that all information was current when published 14 months ago and largely is unchanged today. Largely isn’t completely. Relevant clarification: Pricing for the New York Times digital editions is accurate but doesn’t reflect a current half-price promotion for 26 weeks. That said, the point—pricing that is an affront to consumer contextual consumption of news—is just as valid. 

With that introduction…


Section 2. The New Journalisms

Audience is everything, but who reads, views, or interacts with news is fundamentally and forever changed in the early 21st Century. Five types of journalism shape news writing and information consumption: advocacy, conversational, contextual, mob, and process. All are interconnected but one, contextual, defines the others. Understanding them is essential to successful audience building strategies.

The five journalisms all overlap in a vast convergence of connectivity and mobility that writers Shel Israel and Robert Scoble call the “age of context”. As previously stated, 2006 marks a turning point as several socially-oriented, Internet-connected—in today’s tech vernacular “the cloud”—innovations came to market nearly simultaneously, supported by mobile devices. These social sharing tools reached the masses, extending from an earlier wave, which includes MySpace (March 2003); iTunes Music Store (April 2003); Skype (August 2003); and Flickr (February 2004), among others. Facebook started during the earlier wave, becoming available to Harvard University students in February 2004 but not to the general public until September 2006 (around the same time as Twitter and YouTube).

So the age of context started long before Israel’s and Scoble’s 2013 book identified it as a trend—so sweeping to now be the technological equivalent of a force of nature. For news organizations, the five journalisms are its winds of change.

I. Contextual Journalism

[To preface, and for clarification, my definition of “contextual journalism” little resembles that expressed by Katherine Fink and Michael Schudson in February 2013 paper “The rise of contextual journalism, 1950s–2000s”. We refer to, well, different contexts. The authors recount a shift from straight news reporting (what it is) to news analysis (what it means). Stated differently: They refer to reporters putting news in context. My definition is about the context in which news is created and consumed today.

However, their perspective is somewhat relevant to my discussion of advocacy journalism and the contention that objectivity in reporting is a fiction. Bias is inevitable.]

The age-old adage “content is king” no longer applies. Context is king. That’s because location no longer defines how people consume information, which is more fluid during the age of context. Content follows people everywhere, independent of device or method. Your music is available anytime, anywhere, and on anything. You watch a movie in one context, sitting in the man chair at the mall on a smartphone and resume on the big-screen TV at home. Content is the same, but context and device change.

Content overwhelms news consumers, who choose different sources depending on context. No longer are they dependent on curated editorial content coming from the newspaper, radio, television, or even websites. Mobile apps like Flipboard enable them to gather contextually-relevant information into a personal magazine. Consumers seek out news from friends on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, and other services. Their choices are bountiful.

News gathering, whether by professionals or the average citizen, also is contextual. Anyone with a smartphone is a reporter, a broadcaster. You can capture news anytime and anywhere—and post it online immediately. You are the editor and publisher, too. (I will delve more into this topic, applying principles of responsible reporting in the book’s third section.)

These dynamic changes fundamentally alter the relationship between news reporters and their audience. Content needs to adapt to the means by which people consume it, while writers must transcend delivery mediums.

Seattle Times news app editor Lauren Rabaino, writing about “contextualizing information”, describes the clash between the old and new worlds of news reporting:

Events don’t happen on 24-hour news cycles, and the most important of those events can’t be captured in 2,000-word stories. But that’s how we publish, because that’s how newspapers and daily broadcasts are designed. Topics that impact our lives have winding histories, key players over time, topical shifts that are important to understanding the whole story. They don’t really start over every day with a new angle, as we’d force readers to believe. We’re limiting the opportunity for our readers to understand all the intersecting impacts by reducing that important context into a few paragraphs of background on each new development we write about.

The “24-hour news cycles” made more sense during the print era, when form (column inches and daily delivery) shaped storytelling. More significantly, the story no longer should be confined to the branded media outlet of record.

Context Twitter
Simple example: During Consumer Electronics Show 2014, CNET executive editor Roger Cheng found himself part of a news story, or perhaps precipitating one. T-Mobile’s chief executive is notorious for ribbing rival AT&T, which CES event he attended uninvited. Cheng spotted John Legere and recognized the news value. The reporter snapped a photo and tweeted: “Ran into @JohnLegere at the AT&T party. Yep, he crashed it. And still wearing the pink t-mo shirt. #CES2014”.

Perhaps someone from AT&T would have eventually recognized Legere, but Cheng’s tweet—and photo—made finding the party crasher easy. Twenty-one minutes later Cheng tweeted: “Oh wow, security just escorted @JohnLegere out of the party. AT&T is not happy with my tweet. #ces2014”.

Both tweets are examples of writing news in context, and the second gives context for Legere’s sudden departure. Cheng used his smartphone for photo and tweets, acting as reporter and photojournalist in real time. The example shows how effective short-form storytelling can be delivering news and satisfying an audience of—in Cheng’s case 12,100—Twitter followers, even though the news site gets no direct advertising benefit from content distributed through Twitter.

The tweets immediately went viral. As any seasoned reporter knows, conflict sells. Blogs and news sites picked up the story, too—all good publicity for Cheng and CNET. Keeping in context, Cheng briefly left the venue and banged out the story on his iPhone. He returned to the concert where Macklemore and Ryan Lewis had just started playing.

The first tweet was retweeted 223 times and the second 127—less because the story spread through other news sites, I believe. Cheng’s news story “How I got T-Mobile’s CEO kicked out of AT&T’s CES party” received 753 Facebook Likes, 498 retweets, 223 Google +1s and 88 comments. Those are unusually high numbers for his stories, and they represent reader engagement.

Cheng is by no means unique among journalists for using services like Twitter. I call out this example because it is so contextual—reporting from the phone; reaching readers who might also be mobile (via Twitter); sourcing the news with a photo (easily shared by his followers or by bloggers/journalists); becoming part of the story; providing context for Legere’s ouster; and writing a longer news piece (with clickable headline) in a different context (on the phone outside the venue).

Contextual journalism means reaching the audience wherever it may be, while also contextually reporting the news in real time rather than filing a complete story later on. The audience participates in the story, as it unfolds in Tweets, Tumblrs, Instagrams, or whatever. Readers respond and add to the storytelling and even to the news value, which, by the way, are examples of conversational and process journalisms.

In the traditional news model, readers come to you—to paper, radio, television, or website—and read curated content. In contextual journalism, you take the news to them, often raw and uncooked. The new media, search-engine obsessed model also is outdated, for similar reason. You must take content to readers, rather than presume Google will bring them to you.

Context OS
In January 2014, tech news site The Verge cleverly incorporated context into the presentation of story “Fanboys: Have you ever loved something so much it hurt?” Taking a cue from the topic, editors chose to change the story’s presentation depending on the reader’s operating system, as Jonathon Berlin explains in a Society for News Design blog post.

Guillermo Esteves tells Berlin: “I felt that styling the piece after the reader’s platform was a reflection of the ‘fanboy’ mentality of seeing what they want to see and wanting validation for their choice of platform”. The process meant repeatedly comparing the story design’s appearance on multiple devices.

There are several overlapping contextual layers: Deliberate presentation specific to different devices; layout responsiveness to the reader’s platform; and engaging platform provocation sure to generate comments from fanboys (and arguments among them).

Such thoughtful design also stands to better preserve an “evergreen” story with long shelf life. The process reminds of magazine publishing, but taken to digital domains. Brilliant!

Context Instagram
Another example is simpler and nowhere as unique. BBC posts short videos—Instafax—to its Instagram account. The editorial experiment takes the news to the audience’s context, in under 15 seconds. Some shorts break away from stiff-shirt reporting, such as the Feb. 26, 2014, vid poking fun at an on-air glitch. Accompanying text:

A camera fault which gave the impression a TV reporter was sinking into the studio floor during a regional news report has been fixed, BBC Look North has said. The glitch affected a live report by Caroline Bilton. She later tweeted: ‘Well I’m globally famous it would seem and for all the wrong reasons! Glad it’s making people smile #sinkingfeeling’.

Many other BBC short clips clearly are chosen with social sharing in mind.

Context Abuser
The New York Times paywall is superb example of news out of context. Unlike many other media organizations that give subscribers contextual access for a single price, the newspaper escalates costs depending on device.

Digital subscriptions fall into three buckets:

  • Online plus smartphone, $3.75 per week
  • Online plus tablet apps, $5 per week
  • All digital access, $8.75 per week

Home delivery subscribers receive all digital access, too; $53.20 monthly for 7-day newspaper delivery in Manhattan or $67.60 in California, where I live.

The Times gives news consumers 10 free reads a month, regardless of device, then they pay. However, tiered subscriptions penalize customers for reading in varied contexts—for all digital, annually (paid by the month): $423 and some change when including tax. Discounts are available. The Times bills me $10 per month for tablet-only access; I will cancel when the promotion ends.

By comparison, Wall Street Journal charges $22.99 per month or $218.91 when paid annually for all digital access and doesn’t put smartphones and tablets into different price buckets.

The question to ask: Why pay the Times between $180 and $420 per year (before tax) when aggregators like Huffington Post summarize many of the important stories and make them available in any context on any device for absolutely free?

Context Newsroom
“The newsroom is wherever the reporter is”, says Andy Howell, executive editor for the Standard Examiner, in Ogden, Utah. In April 2014, the newspaper took a contextual approach to news reporting. “No longer will reporters have to return to a bricks-and-mortar newsroom to write stories, or use a laptop to transmit them via email, where they would have to be cut and pasted into our existing system by an editor”.

In late March he “handed out the newsroom” to Standard reporters. “It included news bureaus in city hall, the courthouse, the library, area restaurants, Starbucks, the parks, the den, the living room, the crime scene, the burning structure and anywhere else news happens or needs to be documented. I distributed Chromebook personal computers to each reporter”.

The approach also fits into conversational journalism, which is common practice for the best local news reporters, and reminds of Reuters’ late-2007, early-2008 mobile journalist project, giving each reporter a Nokia N82 smartphone, keyboard, mini-tripod, and solar charger.

Contextual journalism is all about audience engagement, wherever or on whatever it may be.