Impact journalism: Lessons from a comedian’s success in analysing the news


The ‘impact’ journalism has is in danger of replacing ‘online ethics’ as the topic du jour – but maybe for once the subject is one we should all be diving into.

Providing recent analysis on how the American media is covering the US elections, Jeff Jarvis wrote on Medium:

We most certainly need to look at the impact our work has, not only in how interested parties exploit it, not only in how the public interprets it, but also in how effective it is in performing our key job: informing the public. Was the public better informed after this story?

In other words, it’s not just enough to write a story, file it and move on. We need to consider whether it will have an impact on readers. If we look at a story and conclude it won’t have an impact, then we need to ask why we’re writing it in the first place.

Because if an article doesn’t have an impact on a reader, then why would they remember it? And if they don’t remember it, then presumably we’ve lost the race to get that reader’s attention the next time they are looking for something online.

80% of the race for impact will be determined by making sure journalists use the right method to tell a story. Note that in the last paragraph, I used the word article. Whereas once an article in the Press was determined by length – nib, top, grout, lead, spread, splash etc – journalists now have a far wider range of ways to tell stories.

Add to that list live blogs, listicles, Q and As, explainers and live chats … and those are just off the top of my head. Video is another option today, but should it be just clips, or a graphics-led package, a two-way interview, a live feed discussion or something approaching a mini documentary?

And does the revival of the podcast offer yet another way to deliver journalism which has impact? Or the email newsletter – surely they have the scope to have impact on someone if they are written the right way and sent at the right time?

For the modern-day content editor, the job is no longer just about story selection, it’s about determining the best way to tell the story. Reporters shouldn’t expect to be conversant in every one of the options laid out above – but being able to answer the question: “What’s the best way for me to tell this story” is probably second only to the age-old question of “Is this a story?”

Judging the impact of a story goes way beyond the sorts of metrics many newsrooms use – but those metrics are critical to assessing whether a story has the potential to have impact. The ‘1,000 page views rule’ used by Trinity Mirror newsrooms isn’t a hard and fast rule, but a yardstick to determine whether a story can reach a large number of local people – therefore enhancing the ability of  a story to have impact.

As has been pointed out many, many times before, journalists no longer compete with other journalists for the attention of readers, they are now as likely to be competing with TripAdvisor, Pokemon Go and the cute photos of someone’s dog on Facebook for eyeball time with a reader.

Take, for example, the story of Tory MP Philip Davies, who this week had a complaint he made about comedian Russell Howard dismissed by the BBC.

Davies was upset after Howard called him various names – including w*nker, arse hole and toad-faced hyprocrite – while sharing the story of how Davies waffled for over an hour in Parliament to try and kill-off an opposition members’ bill which would have given carers free parking at hospitals.

“How he’s allowed to get away with filibustering?

“Basically what he does, he speaks for long enough so that important things can’t be discussed in Parliament.

“That’s what filibustering is. He just talks bollocks to stop democracy.”

Here’s Howard in action:

The Davies v carers story is well known, and was well-reported at the time. Yet it was Howard’s comments which prompted a complaint from Davies, who argued that Howard’s approach had resulted in ‘abusive texts and emails’ from people.

And that’s the bit that interested me. It was a 90-second segment on what the BBC describes as a ‘satirical show’ that resulted in the emails Davies resented getting. In other words, Howard had such an impact he drove people to take action.

I’m not suggesting all journalists should therefore merge opinion and commentary with factual reporting to inspire people to write rude emails, but it is telling that people watching it felt they knew enough about the issue, and trusted Howard enough, to take action.

As the Reuters Future of News report pointed out recently, over a quarter of under 25s now use social media as their main source of news and a Pew study suggested 70% of Reddit’s users see it is a source of news. If both data points are true, then it’s time essential that journalists are thinking as much about how to tell a story as they are about the story itself.

A journalist with a strong, loyal audience – be that through social media, a newsletter, real-world engagement or a reputation earned through past actions – will be far more successful at ensuring a story has impact than one who has none of those.

Likewise, a journalist seeking to have a strong, loyal audience and/or reputation will be far more likely to succeed in that quest if they are aware of how to ensure a story has right sort of impact on readers.

Is it accurate? Is it in good taste? Is it being told in the right way? Does it answer questions? Does it help people do something? Does it help people on the path to changing something?

From a nib in a weekly paper which helps promote a coffee morning through to the support the Nottingham Post gave to a campaign to raise fund for a man to get a bionic hand, stories which have an impact on local life and local people will help ensure that journalism continues to be relevant to local communities generally.

The more popular an article, the greater the likelihood of impact. But a contrived popularity  – something written purely to be popular, with no substance behind it – will fail the impact test … for having the wrong sort of impact.

Russell Howard’s witty sermon is proof that when it comes to news, impact is coming from the most unlikely sources in our online age – and that’s why impact is so important for the future of journalism. 

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