As journalists representing more than 40 countries descended upon Austin, Texas, over the weekend for the 15th annual International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ), the show clearly evolved from its roots as an academic gathering, with discussions on wearables, drones, engagement metrics, video and journalism startups.
Here are a few highlights from some of the greatest minds in today’s media industry.
“What you see here is a $500 constitutional challenge in a box.” – Matt Waite, professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and founder of the Journalism Drone Lab
The ISOJ audience could hardly contain themselves in anticipation for Waite’s presentation. He had an experimental drone in tow that flew above the crowd at University of Texas at Austin’s Blanton Museum of Art, which was certainly a high point of the conference, but as Waite cautioned, it will be some time before drones will be commonplace — and in certain states, legal — despite their many potential uses for journalistic work. Texas is one of the states where drone photo distribution is a criminal misdemeanor, which Waite says is “hostile to the First Amendment.” He said statewide governments are moving faster than the Federal Aviation Administration in terms of regulation.
“Drones are the modern-day equivalent of shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater,” he said.
Though drones function well and can be bought cheaply, they pose a “significant safety concern” due to their tendency to crash. Possibilities for journalists include relying on drones for overhead photographic views of tornadoes, fires and other disasters, but their sharp blades are too big to launch the gadgets in protest areas or other crowded areas. Much more work should be done on drone technology before they can become a more mainstream reporting mechanism, Waite said.
“When I looked at Google Glass, the first thing I thought was ‘journalism,’” he said, mentioning how he has used Glass primarily with a language translation app called WordLens in foreign countries. Famous for his knack for live-streaming (he is most noted for his 21-hour live feed of Occupy Wall Street), Pool said news organizations should focus more on developing technology for smartwatches so that more live-streaming can be done from the field.
“[Your coverage] doesn’t need to be the most beautiful thing in the world. You just need to get out information as quickly as possible,” he said.
Though he feels more confident in smartphone video technology now, he believes fully that wearables are the future.
“More often, news is going to come through these technologies rather than a website,” Pool said.
ON ETHICAL STANDARDS IN THE DIGITAL AGE
“I’m here to argue against the ethics of journalism … The ship has sailed on ‘Don’t use misleading headlines.’” – John Cook, editor in chief, The Intercept
In a robust discussion, media professionals talked about the position of old school ethics in a digital-first journalism landscape. To what extent do the Society of Professional Journalists’ standards apply when virtually every facet of the news industry, from reporting methods to technology to consumption habits, has changed drastically since they were laid out? The public editor at the Globe and Mail, Sylvia Stead, said the foundational benchmarks of fairness, balance and transparency still apply to news production.
“You still need to verify everything,” she said, even if you have curated a story with mistakes or without merit. “It’s your reputation if things go wrong. Be right before you’re first, and be transparent about your standards and errors.”
One key way the Globe and Mail seeks to be honest is by not taking the story down if the content is based on an Internet hoax or misinformation.
“Keep it up … You can’t fool the readers, and you can’t hide your mistakes,” Stead said.
At the same time, though, she said her Canadian readers are much more accepting of a mistake in a Justin Bieber story than a piece on politics or business.
“They have a trust, and they know what you stand for.”
But John Cook of the Intercept, formerly from Gawker, said he doesn’t hold to the ethics codes established decades ago.
“I’m here to argue against the ethics of journalism. I think of journalism ethics the same way I think of plumber ethics,” he said.
He drew on reporting examples like Watergate to illustrate how unconventional means of retrieving information, made much simpler with the Internet, have proven invaluable in producing exemplary journalism.
“Some fantastic journalism has been produced using unethical and possibly criminal means,” he said, adding that at Gawker, the newsroom’s chief goal was honesty, not accuracy.
Cook noted that the Telegraph in England was able to reveal financial records and abuses of Parliament members, but the information was paid for by the publication.
Said Cook, “Those kinds of tactics have landed huge stories. Is it worth abiding by these rules if, by the end of the day, you’re not actually getting that vital information?”
Cook said even legacy news organizations have become much looser in their definition of what constitutes a news story. Because so many facts, especially during breaking news events, can be gleaned from social media outlets, publishers are writing suppositions more often. The New York Times has presented “rumors” in stories on a recent Brooklyn murder and even the missing Malaysian Airlines jet, but they’re being labeled as rumors coming from Twitter and the like.
“These kinds of decisions are being made as well at these institutions,” Cook said.
PIVOTING AND LEARNING LESSONS FROM STARTUPS
“When things like [Project Thunderdome’s demise] happen, we have to stop acting like this draws some large picture about the future of journalism. We still need to keep trying and failing.” – Jim Brady, editor-in-chief, Digital First Media
ISOJ 2014 starred several buzzwords – “engagement” and “pivot” among them. In the wake of Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome closing, editor-in-chief Jim Brady spoke openly about the lessons entrepreneurial journalists can pull from what Thunderdome accomplished during its run. The initiative had New York-based journalists using mobile-heavy tactics to report national stories that could be used as centralized, wire pieces so that Digital First’s dozens of local newspaper reporters could focus on community journalism, but ultimately, it didn’t monetize. It was, wholly, an innovative project from the beginning, which Brady said offered SEO, social media, data development and video shooting training to 20,000 Digital First employees and provided resources for supplementing national news coverage.
“We ingrained the idea that sometimes, capturing a short video is more valuable than anything you can write about,” he said.
Even though Thunderdome journalists are out of work with Digital First, Brady said the work they did was valuable and certainly, some of what they were doing could be successful in another venue. It’s all part of the process of adaptive journalism, he said.
“We still need to keep trying and failing. It was a great ride … hopefully the right lessons will be drawn from it – and not just the end of it,” Brady said.
One of the crowd favorites among the panels was one that highlighted a diverse group of journalism startups, from The News Lens in Taiwan to PolicyMic in the U.S.
PolicyMic is a digital native news site that wants to be the go-to news source for the millennial generation. At ISOJ, editor and co-founder Jacob Horowitz said his ability to look for a hole in the news industry helped him shape the idea for a startup journalism company. By taking a chance on the notion that indeed young people do care about the news, Horowitz has seen great success, in part because of his strategy to go against the grain. Legacy media channels don’t “get” millennials, he said, and can’t serve what they want.
On top of that? “The home page is dead,” Horowitz said, and posited that a news site is only as good as its social distribution channels. Horowitz simply switched his focus away from the website and toward a culture of sharing.
Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff said his vision of a successful publishing endeavor includes these principles: hire the best in the biz, give them the tools to produce quality stories and create a multidisciplinary newsroom where hacker culture meets journalism culture. His properties, including The Verge and SB Nation, are all profitable (except for Vox.com being built around Ezra Klein), and they run on independent software. “We have a new expression: media hackers,” Bankoff said. “I think the best storytellers are not data driven, but they’re not ignorant of it either and know how to use it.”
Editors from outfits such as Homicide Watch D.C., which trains young crime reporters and makes up for where big D.C. media lacks in police coverage, and Taiwan’s The News Lens, pivot often. The News Lens’ CEO Joey Chung said they redesign their website every quarter or so and roll out new features consistently, like a 90-second-long newscast (the goal being to make it as long as the time between subway stops).
Legacy newspaper companies such as the Washington Post are even experimenting with their journalism products, simply because the media landscape demands it. Executive Editor Martin Baron said they’re opening up a contributors website where experts in their respective fields can dialogue and provide additional resources for reporters. Additionally, they launched a website called Morning Mix that curates world news using an overnight editorial team. Both of these products can be monetized from traffic, Baron said.
In the non-profit sector, hometown hero The Texas Tribune is innovating with new topic-based verticals via digital newsletters and will start an op-ed site called TribTalk, including various policy views. Editor Emily Ramshaw said it may be funded by paid editorial content.
ON NATIVE ADVERTISING
“This flies in the face of what we’ve been hearing [about native advertising].” –Brady Teufel, journalism professor and social networking consultant, California Polytechnic State University
Many publishers have turned to sponsored editorial in a realization that banner and display advertising don’t work like they used to. But this new trend has sparked plenty of controversy inside and outside the news biz; some say that native ads blend in too seamlessly with regular editorial content, which in turn confuses the reader and diminishes trust in the publisher’s brand. Despite these concerns, Patrick Howe and Brady Teufel, researchers at California Polytechnic State University, wrote in a paper that native advertising had no significant effect on readers’ perception of news websites’ credibility. With 65 percent of marketers saying they’re “somewhat likely” or “very likely” to purchase native ads in the next six months, this finding is important.
“This flies in the face of what we’ve been hearing,” Teufel said.
Teufel said the scholars found that the majority of their subjects didn’t even know they were looking at an ad. Perhaps, they hypothesized, their perception of a publisher’s credibility may change if they knew how to identify sponsored editorial content.
Assistant professor of professional practice at USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism Robert Hernandez opened up a talk on the rise of web video and the unknown future of traditional broadcast with a bold statement: “Mobile is dead.” He believes that not only wearables but augmented reality (AR) technologies will carry video news in the future, plugging arjournalism.tumblr.com, a site chronicling his students’ experiments with AR. Rahul Chopra, who now handles video at News Corp., created WSJ Live, the Wall Street Journal’s video channel.
“We had the opportunity to create a new brand and space that cable news TV was ignoring altogether,” Chopra said.
With video, online publishers have the chance to reach out to a new audience, and grow daily. Chopra said the addition of WSJ Live increased the site’s traffic five times over. The majority of streaming video at WSJ is being viewed on mobile, according to Chopra. Another plus of creating video content? “You don’t need an army to produce [it].”
Social promotion ties into video consumption, the panelists agreed. Digital exec Daniel Ellemberg said that Fusion, a digital cable network owned by ABC and Univision, creates content exclusively for its social media followers. Video startup NowThis News uses six-second Vine videos and Snapchat messages to share news and connect to readers. And the New York Times’ general manager of video Rebecca Howard said the web is becoming much less of a textual experience and more rich media-centric.
With that comes lots of opportunity and a challenge for legacy publishers, especially because 10 percent of Americans are going to YouTube for their news. According to Howard, the Times is launching a revamped video library and an all-new web video experience April 28. But despite their success in some other interactive news ventures (“Snowfall” and some follow-ups such as “Tomato Can Blues”), the Times isn’t making money off its video coverage. When asked by Hernandez who is monetizing video, only Chopra raised his hand on behalf of WSJ — indicating there’s more to be learned about sustainability.
Angela Washeck is a freelance writer and editor based in Dallas. She is a proud graduate of Texas A&M University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Communication with a journalism minor. Angela also writes for MediaBistro’s 10,000 Words blog and TexasMonthly.com, and she once interned with TV newsmagazine “Dan Rather Reports.” Her work has been republished on Editor and Publisher, the American Press Institute and more. When Angela is not busy with PBS MediaShift work, you can find her watching “How I Met Your Mother” reruns, watching Aggie football and attending indie/folk concerts in Dallas. Follow her @angelawasheck.