Digital journalism is devastatingly simple – but still a huge leap to be celebrated when we get it right, Mr Greenslade

The fire at Manchester Dogs Home

On Friday, I blogged about the remarkable success the Manchester Evening News was having in raising money for the Manchester Dogs Home, part of which had been torched in what is apparently an arson attempt. In 24 hours, the MEN raised over £1million for the Home. It was, I said on Friday, a stroke of digital journalism genius to spot the mood and respond to it instantly.

It was a blog post which struck a chord. It’s been widely shared on social media networks, primarily Twitter, and yesterday, Gigaom gave the post fresh life with a take on what it means on the other side of the Atlantic.

Then came an alternative view from Roy Greenslade, the journalist academic and journalism blogger at the Guardian. Sure, he argued, it was a great achievement, but what on earth was the ‘usually sensible’ David Higgerson doing describing it as digital journalism genius?  

It wasn’t, claimed Greenslade, anything new. Newspapers have always helped their local communities. In saying that deciding to raise money on the spot, I was over-egging the achievement:

Higgerson wrote: “The newsroom of the future needs to be full of people who spot communities forming on the spot, be it around an event or an issue.”

Sure they do, but this isn’t new thinking. It is teaching a grandmother to suck eggs, and is a further example of the way in which some digital missionaries overplay the significance of the new tools, investing them with a mystical quality.

It’s not the first time Greenslade has had a dig at stuff I’ve written on this blog. The last time, I contacted him to invite him to talk about it in more detail but he never replied.

I’d probably have just rolled my eyes and thought ‘That’s Greenslade again’ if it wasn’t for the fact his line of thinking is so dangerous to journalism, and where it needs to go.

Greenslade seems to subscribe to the school of thought that digital journalism is really just journalism on a new platform. In some ways it is. He’s right to say that newspapers have always sought to do good within their local communities. And there are many other examples of digital journalism reinforcing the importance of long-held core skills.

Photography, for example, shines in the digital world. There is plenty of evidence that political coverage, for so long seen as something we ‘have’ to do rather than believing it actually appealed to readers, does indeed gather an audience now. And campaigns, too, have a new-found impact online.

But pushing forward the notion, as Greenslade does, that deciding on the spur of the moment to open a justgiving page to raise money for a charity while it is still burning down isn’t digital journalism genius – on the grounds that newspapers have always raised money – is a dangerous notion.

Digital journalism is more than just serving up stories online, rather than in print. Ask any newsroom expected to follow a ‘platform neutral’ approach. It’s not enough to say ‘it’s like we’ve always done’ and think that’s enough, because life is far from anything we’ve known before.

Take the MEN example. In years gone by, I imagine the dogs home story would have been covered, and then the conversation would have begun about how to help the dogs home. That might have involved meetings to discuss fundraising, plans around marketing and a detailed content plan – along with hope that by the time the campaign launched, people hadn’t lost interest.

Journalists have much longer memories about what we’ve covered, don’t forget.

Instead, amid the flurry of activity which included a live blog, video, picture galleries and pulling together the printed newspaper, someone put forward the idea of raising money. On the spot. There and then. And because of the ‘give it a go’ culture the MEN’s editorial leadership have put in place, they went ahead and gave it a go.  They listened to a there-and-then audience mood, judged it just right and did something which made a difference. In real-time. That’s huge.

Only someone hell bent on snark would fail to see the significance that has, and I believe it will lead to a change in the way regional newsrooms everywhere cover stories in the future where instant communities form.

As it is, whenever there is a local newsroom success to celebrate, there’s normally someone nearby to pour on the snark. Normally, it’s the commenters on Holdthefrontpage. In this case, it was one of the country’s most respected journalism lecturers.

In pursuing the line that ‘local journalism isn’t that different to what it used to be’, Greenslade fails to acknowledge just how much newsrooms have had to change to be relevant to audiences who expect to have a voice, expect to be listened to, and expect a response.

Take sport, for example, arguably the most popular area of digital content for many regional news sites. You could argue it’s just doing what we’ve always done. But any website only doing what it’s always done – match report on a Monday, manager expects to win on a Wednesday, hamstring update on a Saturday – is one which is dying quickly. Greenslade probably wouldn’t consider introducing ‘five things we know’ articles after each game as a stroke of genius either, but they attract more readers than regular match reports do,

I’ve often heard that ensuring a website is fully refreshed ahead of the next digital spike – a key principle of our new newsrooms at Trinity Mirror – is just like the old days of multiple editions. It is, sort of. But it’s also nothing like it at all. As journalists, we can’t afford to cling on to comfort blankets, be they ones based on a belief that shorthand is the most important skill a journalist can have (it’s A important skill, not THE important skill) or that the world hasn’t really changed that much.

I’m not wrapping journalism up as some mystic art here, as Greenslade suggests. If he knew me, he’d know nothing could be further from the truth.

Digital journalism at its core is devastatingly simple: Listen to readers, and they’ll listen to you. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve spent 30 years in print, 20 years on the radio or are fresh out of a university course and have the right attitude (sometimes a big if): If you are constantly listening to readers, speaking to them, and working with them, you won’t go that far wrong in a digital world.

Justgiving isn’t some secret tool, but knowing when to deploy the tool and doing so at just the right moment, thanks to a newsroom which encourages instant creativity, is still a rare feat. And made possible thanks to moment of genius.

The core values remain but it’s how we reinforce them online and make them relevant to an audience which still expects those values, but in a world where people want to feel empowered to make a difference, there and then, which will determine whether we succeed in the future. It’s worth celebrating when we get it right, as the MEN did last week. By we, I mean the regional press as a whole. Unless, of course, snark is your thing.

The MEN did something truly remarkable last week. It’s testament to the change driven by the editorial leadership at the MEN that it could happen. A moment of genius thinking made it happen. If Roy Greenslade can’t see that, this blog post is less a case of teaching someone to suck eggs so much as having to explain what hens need to do these days…

2 thoughts on “Digital journalism is devastatingly simple – but still a huge leap to be celebrated when we get it right, Mr Greenslade

  1. Hmmm. I pretty much read anything that has a ‘that’s what journalism has always been about’ tone as a cue for an anecdote about how it was ‘in his day’. A disappointing effort from Roy who seems to have missed the point for a spot of ‘heyday’ print evangelism which plays to the gallery.

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