DIGITAL JOURNALISM TRENDS IN 2016: Why it’s time for journalists to climb off the fence

This is the third in a series of posts between now and the end of the year looking at key themes I think will emerge during the course of 2016. The first, about social journalism, can be found here, while the second, about the battle for access to information, can be found here. 

Back in April, Jeff Jarvis took to the stage at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, and declared: “To hell with mass media.” Or rather, that was the name of his speech.

The substance was more subtle than that. Jarvis argued that the days of mass media being a thing which set the news agenda and which people had to turn to for their information were long gone.

Instead, for journalism to succeed in the future, journalists need to build closer connections with their readers and be useful to those readers as well.  For that to happen, argued Jarvis, journalists need to be prepared to become activists if the need arises.

You can hear the full audio here:

It’s a sentiment which, at first, seems so far removed from journalism as we know it. But I also believe it’s a journey we have to go on during 2016 if we are to remain relevant to readers.

Is it possible to become more vocal while at the same time staying true to the principles of journalism? I believe so – indeed I believe it’s essential.

There are several colliding trends which make this a path journalists, especially local journalists, have to take. It’s not a path which involves editorialising every new story written, or forcing an opinion upon readers at the expense of presenting the facts.

The first is the impact social media has had on our journalism, as covered in my first post on journalism trends. There’s only room in town for one news organisation whose USP can be the facts, just the facts, and nothing but the facts (even if many of its local facts are still gleaned from rival media) and that’s the BBC.

Readers clearly respond to news brands which share their values. It’s one of the reasons the Liverpool Echo embarked on such a radical relaunch in the summer in print – but that change of tone and focus has also swelled the digital audience significantly too.

The second is a growing sense that people want to be able to do something about things they aren’t happy with. The Manchester Evening News’s snap campaign to fundraise for the Manchester Dogs Home while it was still on fire was an early example of this. Empowering people to make a difference around a news event can no longer take days or weeks of planning if it is to make an impact, it needs to be done while the reader is thinking about it.

There was a time when newspapers would factor in the the ‘is this a campaign we can win?’ dimension to the decision-making on what to campaign about. Of course, winning a campaign is always nice, but the fear of being seen as less powerful as a result of losing is perhaps less relevant online. The closer connection between reader and publisher means that a publisher prepared to shout is of far more use than a publisher who only shouts when certain of victory.

And there’s an awful lot for people to be unhappy about at the moment, too, which brings me on to the third point.  Funding cuts to councils, hospitals, schools and the police are upsetting many. For so long as many politicians seek to play a back-and-forth blame game, there is a gap for a voice to shout up on behalf of readers and their concerns.

Local journalists can provide the platform for people to express their concerns, while also painting the wider picture of the impact of a proposal the community is opposed to. My local county council, Lancashire, is faced with making huge cuts, and plans to close all but one library in every district. Near where I live, that probably means three libraries will close. My local newspaper, the Rossendale Free Press, broke that news to residents this week and within hours was campaigning for the libraries to remain open – and explaining itself as follows:

We at the Free Press believe our libraries play a vital role in the cultural life of our communities – from their use by community groups to allowing youngsters access to reading material and to challenge themselves intellectually.

We understand that LCC are facing huge budget problems but they must find a better way than this.

That’s all it takes to express a voice which shows readers you aren’t just there to report the news, but to play a role in local life too.

The fourth, and final, reason for the media to find a voice more regularly in the future is because if reporters don’t, and their publications they work for don’t, people will simply work without them.

Using the cuts Lancashire is proposing as an example once again, a petition began on Friday opposing cuts to budgets at two mills museums in this area. At the time of writing over 2,533 people (including me) have signed the e-petition. And that’s not all. Read this blog post and see just how active those behind the campaign are.

They clearly welcome the support of the media, but the role of the media has to be more than just reporting what people are doing. For the same reason so many big brands are now spending significantly on cause marketing – both the Sainsbury’s and John Lewis Christmas ads make a point of saying which charities those brands are supporting – so to the local media needs to be playing its part in making a difference to the communities it serves.

An important caveat for those who worry about impartiality in all of this. There is nothing stopping a news brand being impartial in coverage, while at the same time expressing a view or campaigning in one direction or another.

Indeed, the very forces which mean journalists need to be prepared to become activists also require us to hold our core journalistic beliefs closer than ever. Any sense of bias in reporting – for example, a clear bias towards one political party or other, or attempts to lead the reader through hyperbole rather than assessment of facts – is quickly called out online.

Our ability to make a difference comes from our ability to be seen to be fair, and be seen to be a voice which reflects the views of many within our communities. On occasion, that will involve taking sides within the community, as the Paisley Daily Express did to great effect this weekend when dispelling the myths about Syrian refugees arriving in its area:

A bold statement from a newspaper, and no doubt the right one. Journalists who chose to use their voice, not just pandering to a crowd, but saying what is clearly the right thing.

In short, journalists connected with their communities have a voice that they need to be prepared to use, and which their brands are happy for them to use. It’s the very least readers expect.

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