Bringing newsrooms into the digital age

Bringing newsrooms into the digital ageFrom left to right, BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, Newslaundry founder Madhu Trehan and Wall Street Journal innovation editor Neal Mann at the Storyology conference in Sydney. Photo via The Walkley Foundation

Bringing traditional media into the digital age does not have to be a trickle-down effect – it can be a waterfall if newsroom culture is tackled the right way, according to a panel discussion at the Walkley Foundation’s media conference, Storyology, in Sydney.

While some journalists who spent their careers writing for print were sometimes averse to change, digital and social media offered new ways to get more out of the news gathering skills they had developed.

This was the consensus from a panel discussion, “Transforming journalistic cultures”, moderated by Richard Aedy, of The Media Report. The panel featured BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith, Indian media veteran and Newslaundry founder Madhu Trehan, and Wall Street Journal innovation editor and current News Corp Australia consultant Neal Mann.

Mr Mann, who was charged with modernising the newsroom at the WSJ – a newspaper with an entrenched background of traditional media – said the task, which could be seen as daunting to many, represented “endless possibilities”.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle was the hierarchy common in most traditional newsrooms, he said. Moulding staff away from a print-exclusive culture needed to be done “in a structured fashion”, by targeting those who were both senior and open to change.

It could then happen quite quickly, he said, “not so much a trickle-down effect, but a waterfall”.

Senior figures also needed to trust digital innovators with new ideas rather than demanding to approve their every step, he added, citing the attitude of News Corp senior vice president of strategy, Raju Narisetti.

“Raju told me, ‘I’d rather you apologise later than ask permission – I trust you’.”

Mr Smith was brought into the BuzzFeed team to enhance its more serious news offering and expand its reputation beyond its renowned “cat video” repertoire. He said said people in charge needed to get on Facebook and Twitter. “Honestly, it’s not that hard; my 10-year-old is on top of it.”

Only then would they see for themselves the true benefits, Mr Smith said.

Ms Trehan has almost 40 years’ experience in transforming media culture since she founded India Today in 1975 – when a big challenge was to encourage Indian journalists to “stop writing in Victorian English” and speaking in affected English accents. She said social media had a “seductive power” that would appeal to any traditional journalist motivated by a scoop.

The satisfaction of “getting a quote and getting it out there first is enough [for many traditional journalists],” she said.

Ms Trehan noted that with the rising importance of investigative journalism, aggressive reporting skills are more in demand than ever before – something experienced journalists can bring to the digital table.

Mr Smith shared a similar view, saying publishers needed to distinguish between “hiring young people who know how to tweet, versus journalists who write stuff that people want to tweet.

“The two often get confused.”

In an earlier panel on Wednesday, “Media innovation: new models for a new age”, founder of Filipino news site Rappler, Maria Ressa, said the biggest challenge for experienced journalists was “letting go of what we knew and trusting the new world”.

Ms Ressa said news organisations needed to experiment in order to progress, according to the principles of the fast-paced digital world: “start it, if it doesn’t work get rid of it, if it works keep going”.

Mr Smith shared a similar view, explaining that BuzzFeed “started as a laboratory, with an experimental culture…where it was okay to fail”.

An important issue raised on the panel was the need for journalists to write according to the platform.

“Some people don’t want to change,” Mr Mann said, citing the example of writers setting word limits for online pieces. “Why would we need word limits for online? We should be focusing on keeping readers engaged.”

The key was to show journalists, not just tell, why new methods are worth embracing, he said. “Fortunately now, you can point journalists at the data that shows them why an approach is working.”

Ms Trehan said each medium carried different perceptions and many Indian journalists were still writing for online “as though they were writing [more formally] for print, and not in a way that they would speak”.

At her latest venture, India’s independent news media and media critic platform Newslaundry, she said the newsroom experimented in “dangerous ways”.

These included a system where every article was emailed to every staff member for critique, an experiment which Ms Trehan expected to be chaotic, but “actually works really smoothly,” she said.

Newslaundry also offers certain subscribers privileges including the chance to sit in on news meetings via Google Hangouts and contribute to the discussion – a level of trust not yet seen in any mainstream news organisation.

“The audiences are way ahead,” Ms Trehan said. “We [journalists] can get trapped in our backgrounds.”

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