A tale of two (digital) newsrooms: The best of times, the worst of times

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Wednesday 29 March 2017
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Journalists from Echelon magazine in Colombo, Sri Lanka get to grips with new digital techniques.

By Timothy Large

One is a non-profit investigative journalism outfit set up to hold power to account in Botswana. The other is a glossy Sri Lankan business magazine dedicated to “intelligent storytelling” for an “exclusive and affluent readership”.

Both are determined to move from a “print first” mindset to capitalise on the digital revolution while future-proofing themselves against fickle revenues: donor funding and advertising, respectively.

I had the pleasure of working with the INK Centre for Investigative Journalism in Gaborone and Echelon magazine in Colombo to help develop “digital first” strategies to capture new audiences and broaden the range of storytelling.

The idea was to make the most of whatever equipment, IT and people-power they had at their disposal, not to invest in expensive new kit or overhaul newsrooms.  

The week-long consultancies were part of the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s Tomorrow’s News programme, “for media outlets in developing countries or countries in political transition that are committed to high quality journalism, and that want to produce strong digital content that increases their reach and impact - but which are uncertain what kind of content will work best, and how to produce it on a tight budget”.

For both newsrooms, these are the best of times and the worst of times.

The best of times because new technology - not least the near-ubiquitous smartphone - offers affordable news-gathering and dissemination tools that were unthinkable until recently.

That handset in your pocket is now a high-resolution camera, TV channel, editing suite, radio station and design studio. It’s a homepage, a news wire, a social media megaphone. iPhone or Android, it’s a hotline to and from audiences near and far.

Meanwhile, these are the worst of times because getting people to pay for digital content remains a Sisyphean struggle in a world where everyone expects news to be free — although there are signs that may be changing as more publishers successfully put up paywalls.

A few facts and figures put the opportunities and challenges into perspective.

Every 60 seconds, people worldwide upload 500 hours worth of video to Youtube. They post 3.3. million items to Facebook, conduct 3.8 million Google searches and upload 66,000 photos and videos on Instagram. Twitter users craft almost half a million tweets and WhatsApp devotees send 29 million messages. 

Most of this activity takes place not on laptops or tablets, but on many of the world’s 2.5 billion smartphones.

For newsrooms worldwide, managing this “content shock”, as it is commonly called, means knuckling down and figuring out a digital strategy that is single-minded yet pliable to the whims of new technology, social media platforms and ever-changing algorithms.

It means wrestling with trends articulated in the latest Digital News Project by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism - not least the growing power of new communications channels as traditional media continues to lose influence and money.

Artificial intelligence; the pros and cons of Facebook Live; the need to capture user data to deliver more personalise content; mobile news alerts; the potential of Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Snapchat as powerful ways to distribute news; how to craft the perfect headline for social media users; tools for producing striking infographics…

We discussed all this and more as we put the workflows and business models of INK and Echelon under the microscope.

In Botswana, the mobile penetration rate is 130 percent, suggesting tremendous scope to reach new audiences through Android smartphones (no iPhones in sight). 

Under a glaring sun, INK journalists got to grips with livestreaming and shooting high-quality stills. They then learned how to shoot, edit and publish broadcast-quality video news reports entirely on their handsets.

“The use of smartphones to tell a story has not been explored in Botswana but it appears the newsroom consultancy ignited interest in taking that route,” INK co-founder Joel  Konopo wrote in an email.

“There are those who have been inspired by the consultancy to the point of considering options of establishing the first ever interactive online news platform that publishes video and other media on social media.”

The media landscape in Sri Lanka offers similar scope for digital innovation, even as print advertising revenues remain fairly healthy, at least for a high-end magazine like Echelon with its two-page spreads showcasing Omega watches and Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts.

Using the latest iPhones - and joined by journalists from Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka - the team experimented with new formats to increase their digital audience to the point where their hard-working marketing team can start to sell online advertising.

I challenged them to imagine a digital strategy ambitious enough that online users would, in time, be willing to pay a monthly subscription - following the lead of the likes of The Economist, The New Yorker, Financial Times and The New York Times.

The secret is to deliver a stream of digital content so valuable that users simply can’t do without it. That meant taking a close look at exactly who Echelon is targeting and what really makes them tick, from the fund manager or entrepreneur to members of the Sri Lankan diaspora keen to reconnect with their home country.

“While we expected to be updating skills, discovering processes and sharpening awareness, we didn't expect to be confronted with challenges about understanding our audiences and breakthroughs around our own products,” Echelon Editor-in-Chief Shamindra Kulamannage wrote.

Timothy Large is an award-winning multimedia journalist and news editor. He is former editor-in-chief of the Thomson Reuters Foundation and director of the organisation’s media development and commercial training programmes.