The new journalism

Print edition : July 11, 2014

Financial Times found that 62 per cent of its online readership happens on mobile phones and tablets, only 38 per cent on desktop, and all this as recently as 2010.

The best example yet of the very big and long and complex story made easy online with multimedia finesse is The Guardian's "NSA Files: Decoded" on the documents leaked by Edward Snowden (in picture). Photo: AP/NBC News

IT is like someone or something very familiar suddenly beginning to look and act strange. Our well-established idea of journalism, we are told, no longer is, but has been. We do not yet quite know how it will all turn out, but there are good indications of what it may no longer be. If only this ceaseless impulsion, or compulsion, to keep ourselves updated to the minute could take a break and sort itself out behind one of those “Don’t look, we’re changing” banners, and a rejigged journalism could step out and reintroduce itself to us. But then, the practice of journalism, like that of democracy which it underpins, is not given to such neat makeovers and there is no escape, it would appear, from being buffeted by the winds of change until things settle down and we find our bearings again.

For now, we are into, it would appear, an intermediary phase where journalism must keep readjusting itself as it tries to be all things to all devices and formats—the printed page, television screens, the desktop, the tablet, the phone and “wearables” like the Google glass or the interactive wristwatch. The sense of flux is, as captured in the report “Trends in the Newsrooms 2014” by the World Editors’ Forum, often as sudden as it is inexorable. If print seems destined to soon become the dinosaur on the news mediascape, desktop does not seem to have much longevity either. Financial Times already finds that 62 per cent of its online readership happens on phones and tablets, only 38 per cent on desktop—and all this since as recently as 2010. As Lisa MacLeod, Head of Operations of FT.com, puts it, “Desktop is the new print. It’s static, one-dimensional, and it’s slowly becoming more and more marginal to our business.”

This may have something to do with the specialised news and information Financial Times purveys and the profile of its target consumers. Vanilla news that aims for across-the-board maximal reach may still be driven by more conventional print and television media, with an increasing presence across the newer online platforms. But the cutting edge is clearly shifting from the legacy media to the digital start-ups like Buzzfeed, Upworthy, Vice, and Vox and alternative ventures like the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media with a deep commitment, and a deep pocket to match, to “original, independent journalism” and with crusaders like Glen Greenwald and Laura Poitras, who collaborated with Edward Snowden in exposing the National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance files, at their helm.

The journalists who know are only too aware that the mass migration online and the indiscriminate, freewheeling mix of social media and professional journalism come at price. Being online means not being alone, despite the anonymity or pseudonymity that the Net notionally offers. It means being vulnerable to being tracked by intelligence agencies like the NSA and its counterparts, or instruments of the state who play its role or do its bidding, in different countries. Editors and journalists of prestigious international online and offline news media publications are increasingly alive to this scrutiny and surveillance and are resorting, as a matter of routine precaution, to encryption of all online correspondence they consider sensitive. Indeed, they are not being paranoid when they wonder whether handwritten notes handed over personally may be the safest way to communicate these days.

But the new thrust of data analytics in journalism can be as intrusive and violative of privacy as any snooping by the state. The shift from quantitative to qualitative measurement of page views and unique visits aims to provide, in the words of Tony Haile, chief executive officer of the Web analytics firm Chartbeat, a “second-by-second, pixel-by-pixel view of user behaviour”. Such business-driven profiling of the news media consumer is, moreover, now seen as falling within the purview of journalism. “The truth is that in 2014 the very definition of journalism has to be expanded to include [that] it is a journalist’s job to get more people to read their journalism,” says Raju Narisetti, senior vice-president, Strategy, of News Corp. “It’s nobody else’s job, so data and tools are enablers of that. I don’t think any journalist or editor will argue that getting more people to her or his journalism is a bad thing.” Perhaps not, but there is no guarantee that personal data, mined and collated for commercial journalistic purposes, are not requisitioned by the intelligence establishment for a different construct. Independent journalism today seems artificially pitted against the overriding and paramount cause of national security, and journalists are no longer sure at all that they can protect the confidentiality of their source—an ethic the profession took pride in—when that cause is invoked.

Importance of verification

With user-generated content on the social media qualifying, often hedging in, professional journalistic output, verification becomes ever so important. Eric Scherer, director of Future Media at France Television, puts it thus, “The next big thing is not attention, the next big thing is trust.” It is for this task of discriminating, of filtering, the reliable news from the melange of information and gossip and opinion and rumour out there on the Net that journalistic skills need to be trained, and it is this that will continue to set apart and, in good part, vindicate the practice of journalism in the age of the Net.

As journalism moves online, it is likely to polarise into the short crisp story to match the user-friendliness of the handheld gadget on which it is received and the very long investigative narrative. There is little scope, Janine Gibson, the editor-in-chief of theguardian.com, points out, for “the stuff in the middle”. This is reminiscent of what television did to cinema in an earlier era. The grand, big-budget spectacle and the small, often creatively alternative, work were apportioned to the big screen in the cinema; the rest—the middle-of-the-road fare—was propelled to the electronic small screen.

The language, packaging, look and feel, and presentation of journalism would vary to suit its delivery mode. The lexical implosion into bits and bytes, truncations and abbreviations, and codes and signs replacing words and sentences may be part of the inevitable logic of smaller and smaller reception screens and attention spans and the need for terseness in push technology. What this does to the aesthetics of language may be the despair of the syntactic-minded scribe. This is journalese redefined and technologically determined. To make a virtue of the necessity, it may be time to recast the connotative alphabet rather than the word as the unit of written (or keyed-in) expression, just as the syllable rather than the word already is in the spoken language.

The best example yet of the very big and long and complex story made easy online with multimedia finesse is The Guardian’s “NSA Files: Decoded” on the documents leaked by Edward Snowden. In his account, “Why the mega-stories matter”, in the “Trends in Newsrooms 2014” report, Andrew Nachison, the founder of WeMedia, waxes eloquent on it: “Stories like ‘NSA Files’ are exceptional, and this is why they matter. They are stretches. They are creative bursts in a sea of sameness. They are a proof of life. They offer hope for the future—and also a hint at what the next generation of digital news products could look like, and how they might demonstrate distinctive value, rather than simply claim it.”

Global investigative networks

Journalistic investigation is also being scaled up to a collaborative, collective global enterprise to meet the transnational scope and nature of corruption and crime. The Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), in which about 100 journalists’ organisations from 50 countries are represented and whose eighth congress in Rio de Janeiro was attended by 1,200 journalists from 100 countries, is one such recent banding and bonding across national borders in the cause of the pursuit of hidden truths that need to be exposed in the public interest.

Another, older, organisation, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), saw its networked might put to the test when tackling the humungous leak on offshore tax havens which a local investigation of a financial racket in his native Australia fetched the journalist Gerard Ryle. It was, as Professor Rosental Alves of Texas University’s School of Journalism recounts in his chapter on “Trends in Global Collaborative Journalism” (in the Trends report), a huge cache of 2.5 million files disclosing the offshore financial dealings of 120,000 account holders from 170 countries over 30 years—in terms of scale, 170 times that of the WikiLeaks haul. The ICIJ collaborated with 112 journalists from 60 countries to parse this plethora of material, and the stories that ensued in leading newspapers across the world made a tremendous impact.

It might be a good idea for the Special Investigation Team set up by the Narendra Modi government to try and induct bodies of investigative journalism like the ICIJ or the GIJN into the effort to unearth the ownership and scale of the black money stashed away in secret foreign accounts by Indians.

For one, it would make the whole exercise more credible, and not be seen as motivated by partisan politics. It would, further, dispel the suspicion that if and when the government manages to get the information, it is likely to use it selectively against its political opponents. Also, journalists, more than most, have a better chance of helpful leaks coming their way and have the skills to pierce through the only-to-be-expected official stonewalling by the custodian banks or institutions of this illegally hoarded money.

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