Good News: Digital Journalism Isn’t Dead

Publishing used to be simple: once upon a time, journalists would report on a story, write it up, send it to editing and watch it materialise in print. Now, the business of news is a far cry from the smell of ink on the presses and swarming newsrooms filled with people all fighting to hit the same 6pm deadline. Even after the advent of the internet, things remained fairly straightforward – digital journalism simply referred to the one or two ‘website guys’ dotted around, in charge of making sure stories were delivered to cyberspace as well as people’s letterboxes. But over the years, as technology advanced and social media became the world’s number one news channel, publishers have had to establish which social media platforms they should share their coverage on and how best they can present it.

Arguably, journalists have had to navigate the treacherous, ever-changing landscape with more careful footing than most. Thanks to the fake news epidemic and Facebook’s ongoing power struggle with publishers, there is a growing anxiety among news outlets surrounding the stemming of organic growth, hence distribution has proved a toilsome task for many. But, there are already ample headlines circulating which point out publisher perils and the digital death grip; what’s less common is positive discussion and guidance around the opportunities (yes, they exist) which social and digital media has given to journalists and enabled them to bring news, rightly and finally, into the 21st century.

Native content such as live videos focus on engagement over impressions – forcing publishers to up the quality of their content

A report last year by The Tow outlined two primary types of platform-based content which the most successful publishers were using effectively: native and networked. Native content refers to channels such as Snapchat Discover, Facebook Instant Articles, or LIVE – these formats live entirely within the walled gardens of the platforms – while networked content sits on or links back to the news organisations’ own sites through sharing via Facebook posts, Tweets, LinkedIn Groups, and now Google’s AMP Stories.

As Facebook seeks to replace passive scrolling with meaningful engagement, although impressions may go down, this change has actually had a positive effect on those championing native content with the aim of driving such engagement. In this new era, comments are king and this has become apparent already for many publishers who, even after Facebook’s infamous algorithm change, are seeing success with Facebook LIVE. According to Digiday, “live videos reach twice as many people and receive 25% more engagement than native videos on Facebook.” The same report found that despite a decline in viewership numbers, those who have stuck with the format and focused on driving higher quality live streams are seeing their engagement figures have actually risen as a result.

Twitter’s reputation for breaking ‘what’s happening now’ aligns with publishers’ own goals

Twitter has been growing in popularity with publishers of late; last year, the platform announced mobile push notifications and ‘while you were away’ Tweets to surface highly engaging content, driving up discoverability for publisher videos. Since then, viewer counts have continued to rise.

“Increasingly, media companies say that Twitter has found a sweet spot as a true programmer with a unique strength in live video,” Business Insider reports. Twitter also revealed itself that payouts to publishers on Twitter were up 60% in 2017. With the platform absorbing Facebook’s leftovers, that figure is set to rise even further in 2018.

The fast-paced nature of Twitter also means it is, arguably, the strongest contender for breaking, real-time news stories. It’s no surprise, therefore, that Twitter is actively working to make live videos more discoverable by promoting them in prominent sections of the Twitter product lineup, including the Explore tab and its “Happening Now” feature, which showcases prominent tweets about events such as the Olympics.

Networked content such as Google AMP Stories bring the power of social back into the hands of publishers

The most successful businesses on social are those that integrate both native and networked content to provide a consistent cross-platform presence which feeds into their wider marketing objectives and overall business goals. Sterling Proffer, head of business strategy and development at Vice, says: “Going all in, solely on the platform to support your entire ecosystem in every way, is a big gamble.”

For those publishers who are also seeking continued traffic on their own sites and owned properties, networked content is evolving to accommodate the same level of engagement which native content offers to readers – for instance, Google’s AMP Stories have taken the much-loved format of Snapchat and Instagram Stories and given it a home on publishers’ mobile websites, so news outlets can get the best of both worlds. Names such as Food Network, Entertainment Weekly and People Magazine are also pinching the style of Snapchat’s Discover Stories for their own apps as a way to control distribution, whilst also retaining readers who respond to social-first content formats such as this.

Those willing to embracing emerging technologies need not be worried

Of course, the key to staying afloat in changing tides is simply riding the wave. This means embracing new technological developments and being fearless in your approach to trying new mediums. One publisher that has embraced new tech with open arms is the New York Times, who recently launched campaign which saw them pioneer augmented reality as a means of storytelling. The publication saw huge success using AR to report on the Winter Olympics, as presenting the athletes in 3D meant that readers could tangibly see the level of sophistication in athletes’ movements as they read about it, which the NYTimes described as “aiding their imagination and bringing a new level of accuracy to reporting.”

“If photography freed journalists to visually capture important moments, and video allowed us to record sight, sound and motion, then our augmented reality feature goes a step further, making flat images three-dimensional,” the NYTimes said in a statement. “AR brings our report to you in a way that makes it more immediate than ever before.”

Artificial intelligence is also coming into play for digital storytelling through social media; Ad Age for example now have a dedicated chatbot in Messenger which delivers curated content to its readers, similar to how an RSS feed works but with the added benefit of machine learning-level personalisation. We are also using WhatsApp to deliver the social-first stories that mean the most to you directly to your pocket. Just add Social Chain as a contact under +44 7432 274928 and text ‘Join’.

Journalism will die today, and the next day, and the next

Five years ago we read reports on how news and journalism was a dying industry; we still hear that today and we’ll hear it five years from now. The truth is journalism will die today, and the next day, and the next day – as long as we continue to label a change of states as a death. Yes, some formats will fade away; others will resurface and come back into fashion. But this isn’t a death, it’s a reincarnation.

The bottom line is that no matter which platform is ‘dying’ and which is ‘winning’, they each have benefits and fallbacks among different age groups and demographics. The only thing that matters is the audience, so even if the entire industry is mocking Snapchat, if that’s where your ideal audience is spending all of their time then you have no choice but to put your content out via Snapchat.

The best tool you have is your analytics: check them often and use them to understand who is listening and where so that you can adjust your strategy as you go along. Who do you want to reach? Where are they spending their time and attention? How do they prefer to engage with content? Once you know these, you need not worry about anything else.

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