“Data-driven journalism is the future,” says a man famous for changing the world as we know it.
At 34-years-old Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web and so began the internet age which dominates our lives today. Berners-Lee thinks journalists need to be data-savvy, and I agree.
The days where news comes largely from people chatting in bars and hearing inside information has, to an extent, vanished. Today, most news breaks on Twitter; bite-size nuggets of information to be easily consumed without the need to spend an hour poring through a lengthy newspaper.
The era of newspapers themselves is almost over; the majority of national papers have suffered an ever declining circulation (The Guardian is, this year, an odd exception to the rule) and magazines have endured a year-on-year decrease in sales due to a proliferation of online competitors.
In a world where anyone can publish free-to-access content, the written word is no longer something you have to pay for. If I want film reviews of movies yet to be released in the UK I can go to American blog sites months before Total Film has the chance to print a glossy (and pricey) magazine review. So why should I fork over the money?
In a conversation I had with Empire Film Magazine’s Online Editor, James Dyer, he spoke of how he got such a highly contested job working for Empire simply because he had all the skills necessary to run the website on his own (if, for some reason, his colleagues vanished).
“Digital skills are very much in demand,” Dyer says. “You should be able to edit audio for podcasts and edit video for interviews. It behooves you to know this stuff. Do you need to know HTML? Probably not, but is it a good thing? Yes.” He certainly has a point – with constricting budgets, someone who can cope with as many aspects of journalism as possible is in high demand.
According to Berners-Lee, journalism is now more about searching through data to find anomalies and more interesting facts than ever before. The internet is full of information. There’s an impossible amount to wade through, so anyone who can locate the interesting facts that are hidden away is someone who will almost certainly find work.
More than that though, data can be correlated in fascinating ways by tech savvy journalists. One LA Times reporter, Ken Schwencke, has developed an algorithm to write news reports automatically. It uses feeds from a US Geological Survey website in order to generate automatic stories about Earthquakes. To some it may be a worrying sign of a world in which computers replace humans but it is undoubtedly an ingenious way of streamlining the process of news reporting. It’s quicker, impartial and leaves room for human journalists to do more detailed and, dare I say, more interesting newswriting.
But is it the future of news reporting? Twitter has already revolutionised breaking news by bringing in the instantaneous spread of information, and so it’s only a step further to automatically correlate that information and publish it. But how will the next generation of aspiring journalists begin to make a living from journalism? Why are scores of students across the country spending thousands on journalism degrees when there are so few career opportunities afterwards?
There’s more to the future than journalists who can correlate information and analyse data. For a long time, the internet simply provided a digital version of the content people were already used to reading in magazines and newspapers. But more recently the increase in average internet speeds (and the introduction of 4G) has allowed for the internet to become way more than just a platform for the written word. Videos, sound-bites or music and photos have already become an essential part of modern websites, and online journalism is changing rapidly to find new, exciting ways to present the information it has to offer.
This last year has seen a significant increase in the number of parallax-scrolling articles – longform pieces of writing that include various other bits of media and are generally interactive. These lengthy essays are revolutionary in terms of the style and technology behind them. The New York Times’ article Snowfall in 2012 was the first significant article in this style but soon other similarly styled articles were appearing around the web – this recent BBC article on Rio de Janeiro’s iconic Christ the Redeemer statue being another example. These longform pieces are the perfect kind of online content because they combine all the media the audience wants from their news. Naturally, journalists and editors alike are desperate to have their content displayed in this style.
Crucially though, to produce articles like these requires time, effort and a knowledge of how to code; writers from the previous generation of journalists were never taught the skills required to create these multi-media internet traffic magnets. The only option has been to hire in ‘tech’ people to do the coding and writers to do everything else. In an industry where budgets are shrinking, this false economy won’t last long. The journalists will need to know how to do complex coding and the ‘tech’ people will need to know the law, how to gather information and how to write succinct prose. In short, why pay two people when you can pay one?
It isn’t just these longform parallax-style articles though. The increase in smartphones and tablets has caused an incredible rise in the number of people accessing the internet via something other than a traditional computer. An incredible 50% of people now use their mobile phone as the primary access point to the World Wide Web. Journalists could easily assume that this bears no relationship to their job of writing something and publishing it but it can make an incredible difference to views (and therefore advertising revenue and wages). If a site can’t easily be accessed on a mobile phone then many users simply give up and return to Twitter or Google to find something else to satiate their needs.
The Guardian’s website has recently been redesigned to cater for this audience with a new responsive layout (this means it adapts to the size of the screen without compromising how easy it is to read) but it is one of only a few of the national newspapers to have done this. Are the others doomed to fail because of their slowness or reluctance to adapt? It’s possible, with the growing number of ways to access news (both broadsheet and tabloid style), that those who do not adapt will be left behind.
However news organisations decide to move their publications forward, they simply have to employ people who have been trained to know how both the news and websites work. People who can create a mobile phone app as easily as write a news article are now in high demand – as much as people who could write 200 words per minute in shorthand used to be. The hacks of Fleet Street are becoming less and less relevant unless they themselves adapt to the new world order and learn the skills which are becoming essential for modern journalism.
Over the last century journalism has changed dramatically and repeatedly, so the skills of those who practice it have also had to change. Whether it was the move from written news to audio and visual news or a shift from typewriters to word processors, journalists have always made the transition. There’s no reason why they won’t this time but they need to do it fast. The news that Cardiff University & Goldsmiths in London are to offer combined courses on computer science skills and journalism is a start – the first few pebbles which will cause an avalanche of graduates all hungry to take over the media… and this time, they’ll have all the skills necessary to do just that.