Journalism in the digital age: trends, tools and technologies

May 8, 2014News

At the recent Edinburgh International Science Festival, The Guardian hosted a panel event which featured Scotland correspondent Severin Carrell, Guardian Local launch editor Sarah Hartley and Iain Hepburn of the Daily Record. Information Architect Martin Belam gave this presentation discussing the impact of technology on journalism, and looking ahead at future trends.

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Tumblr blogging serviceIt used to be incredibly expensive to publish a story and make it available to a mass audience. In the centre of Rome, for example, is the Colonna Traiana. Built by the Roman Senate to celebrate the achievements of Emperor Trajan, it can be argued that it was the equivalent of the council newspaper today – an expensive propaganda tool, telling the story of events in the way that the state ordered them to be portrayed.

Several hundred years later, the time consuming and costly business of transcribing documents by hand was how news was reported and preserved. The production, transmission and survival of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relied on the knowledge of writing being passed down through the Church.

The printing press broke the monopoly of the scribes, and it was William Caxton who first introduced printing to these islands. This lead to a flourishing of ideas as people were suddenly able to read and produce pamphlets on all kinds of subjects, not just rely on the chiefly religious and philosophical texts approved by the church.

There is something very important to note about Caxton’s output in this picture though. The blank space in the page is for an illuminated capital letter to be inserted. It wasn’t possible to publish elaborate script in multiple colours using the printing presses of the era, and so the advance of speedy mechanised printing was compromised by the need to still finish some of the product by hand. Rather like making a man walk in front of a horseless carriage carrying a flag, this pattern of a new technology being hindered by imposing a hybrid model incorporating old behaviours is something we see repeatedly. As well as books, the printing press allowed the forerunner of the newspaper to develop – the broadside. Printed on one sheet, and cheap enough to be the tabloids of their day, they were popular for around 3 centuries, from the 1600s onwards. The National Library of Scotland hasan excellent digitised collection of them on the web. The content varied from news of war and political developments, through story-telling ballads of crime and punishment, to the utterly fanciful, like this 1700s example about a mermaid seen near Inverness. Of course the technology of producing newspapers has also gradually evolved, and nowadays page layout is done by computers. The printing presses themselves are huge industrial machines, in contrast to this antique press which sits at the entrance to The Guardian’s office in Kings Place.

A new reach

But really it has been the development of the World Wide Web over the last 15 years or so which has utterly transformed the publishing landscape in our era. For mainstream journalism this has meant vastly increased distribution. The UK’s major newspapers now have audited global monthly audience figures measured in the tens of millions, at a time when printed circulation continues a long-term decline.

It used to be the case that if I wanted to read the Belfast Telegraph, I pretty much had to be in Belfast, and hand over some cash to the newspaper sellers and newsagents around the city. Now, of course, I can read the website for free from the comfort of my own home, whether that is in London, New York or New Delhi. A new speed Digital publishing has compressed the timescales for journalists and newspaper production staff. In years gone by, news of suicide bombers underground in the Russian capital would have meant producing a graphic for the following day’s paper – a lead time of several hours. Nowadays, Paddy Allen has to get an interactive map of the bombing locations finished, accurate, and published on the website as quickly as possible.

New voices

The world wide web also means increasing competition for newspapers. Not just from TV and radio companies that have moved into producing news in the written word format – the BBC News website is essentially a newspaper that doesn’t happen to have a printed edition – but from newer companies and services like MSN and Yahoo!, and from a multitude of independent voices. The emergence of self-publishing platforms like the Geocities of old, or the WordPress blog of today, has reduced the barrier and cost of publishing to virtually nothing.

New digital ethics

The growth of easy digital publishing technology brings with it new ethical dilemmas for journalists. Even as the press write scare stories that Facebook can give you cancer, sex diseases and is a danger to your children, newspapers use it as a valuable research tool.

Whenever a young person is in the news, Facebook or other similar social networks are usually a ready source of images. No longer does the news desk have to wait for a family to choose a cherished photo to hand over. A journalist can now lift photographs straight from social networking sites, and often, in the most tragic cases, newspapers republish tributes to lost friends that have been posted online.

This leads to a new potential for ethical problems. The Scottish Sunday Express, for example, splashed with a story that survivors of the 1996 Dunblane massacre had been ‘shaming’ the memory of their fallen classmates on Facebook.

To most people it just seemed that they were acting like ordinary teenagers on social network sites, and that the ‘outrage’ was entirely manufactured by the paper. The Express was ultimately forced into an apology for the article, and in part this was because of an online petition of over 11,000 people protesting about the article. A new accountability It is Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir, however, who has become the text book example for this kind of thing. Moir wrote a column about Stephen Gately’s death that was accused of being homophobic, and, with publication on the eve of his funeral, was at the very least extremely poorly timed. Digital publishing and the growth of social media facilitated widespread protest against her piece, and as links to the article spread across the web, an unprecedented total of over 22,000 complaints were registered with the Press Complaints Commission. Does this signal a new accountability for journalistic opinion? Well, maybe not, since in the end, the PCC effectively brushed aside the complaints, and argued that Moir had a right to comment and express her opinion. I don’t think the episode was without consequence though. I’m not clear that many of those 22,000 people complaining would have even heard of the Press Complaints Commission before the #janmoir hashtag and Facebook campaign pages got going. They’ve now had a dispiriting experience of press self-regulation. Subsequently, Rod Liddle has become the first person to have complaint about their online blog upheld by the PCC, because they ruled an opinion piece must have some basis in fact. The Liddle article was also widely complained about online, and this particular ruling may be the beginning of us seeing online protests having an impact on press accountability. A new mobility There is still an inequality in publishing – albeit one that I think sometimes journalists don’t appreciate. Journalists still have exclusive access to newspaper audiences, and the technology developed by the news industry. But they also have access to all of the other freely available tools as well. When I look at a publishing platform like Tumblr, it sometimes seems like the only way you can’t publish to the Internet is by folding up a message into a bottle and throwing it into the sea. Everything else – email, voice phone call, desktop app, iPhone app – is catered for. There is no reason why a journalist cannot use Tumblr or YouTube orDipity to tell their story. They are not forbidden from using the same tools as the ‘citizen journalist’ or blogger. In fact, Paul Mason set up the first BBC News blog for Newsnight on Typepad, not BBC Online. Blogging was only subsequently integrated back into the BBC site when he had demonstrated that the medium had journalistic value.

The amount of equipment needed to cover events has also drastically decreased. A single decent smartphone can replace the separate camera, sound recording equipment and laptop needed to report from events even just a couple of years ago.

So what trends in journalism do I see being driven by technology over the next couple of years?

Live blogging

“Live blogging” is becoming increasingly prevalent across news sites. Somewhat taking its shape from the over-by-over or minute-by-minute text sports commentary, these are rolling articles on a topic updated during the day as a story unfolds. There seems to have been a particular focus on them for this year’s election campaign. At The Guardian,Andrew Sparrow has been leading the way.

On any given day his election live blog will cover the main party press conferences, feature embedded video, commentary on the party campaigns, and prominent links to other web coverage of the election. It is very much a pick’n’mix hybrid type of coverage, and seems particularly native to the web. Unlike the traditional written article, or the two minute video or audio slot, you can’t translate the live blog directly to another medium. Linked Data Another area where I expect to see technological innovation impact on journalism is the concept of ‘Linked data’. This is a movement to make the web more ‘semantic’, taking us from a collection of hyperlinked documents to a collection of hyperlinked data and facts. In some domain areas, like music, the principle is becoming well established, and media companies are already making use of it. The site Musicbrainz provides a unique identifier for artists, which allows other sites to link their content about a band or singer with relevant related content. The Magnetic Fields are 3ff72a59-f39d-411d-9f93-2d4a86413013 for example, and so the BBC are able to make this pagewhich gives an overview of the band by extracting a biography from Wikipedia, and automatically assembles other information about them from around the web. They are then able to link this to a list of when and where their music has been played on BBC Radio.

The domain model to make these kinds of connections between news stories is more complex – but some of the building blocks are beginning to appear. Not least of these is the fact that the UK Government is committed to releasing data according to Linked Data standards, raising the possibility that every school or hospital, for example, will have permanent unique identifiers that can be applied to news content. This could significantly change the way that journalists research stories and make connections, and news organisations seem well placed to utilise this development to present the data-driven stories that will emerge to their mass audiences.

Living Stories

A third trend is illustrated by Google’s “Living Stories” project. This experiment was a partnership between the search and advertising behemoth, and two rather more traditional American media companies – the Washington Post and New York Times. “Living Stories” is a system that allows news organisations to build a hub page where a story unfolds.

I think there is something very attractive in this idea.

If you take, for example, the recent unrest in Kyrgyzstan, it is a fair bet that a significant proportion of your news audience will not have expert knowledge on the country. Rather than reading daily snapshots of ‘what happened yesterday’ written up as articles for print and trying to second guess the underlying causes, a “Living Stories” page gives an overview and timeline of a ‘story’, as well as the latest developments. This example is a New York Times page about the issue of climate change.

In my opinion the trial was not without flaws. For one thing, I find the aesthetic of the user-facing design to be a little on the dull side. Secondly, Google have open-sourced the code, and, having played with it, I’m not sure how popular or usable the back-end content management system would be in news rooms. Nevertheless, like “Live blogging”, I think there is something very interesting in the format. Again it is genuinely ‘of the medium’, and only suited to working in a digital format.

Journalism in the digital age

One crucial thing to remember is that the concept of ‘journalism’ is a separate thing from the concept of running a newspaper. Whilst the recession and structural changes in the industry have put the business model of making and selling newspapers under severe strain, journalism in a digital age will undoubtedly continue. We’ll no doubt see a change in the mix of whether news is produced by the professional, the pro-am, or the random passer-by who happens to be at the right place at the right time once with a cameraphone. From chronicle to broadside, from broadsheet to iPhone app, the format and delivery of news has always changed as a result of technological change and innovation, but the basic human behaviour of wanting to uncover, tell, and share stories of common interest always remains.