Lessons Learnt From The Evolution Of Journalism: Creating Content In The Digital Age - Part 1

A few months ago I enjoyed attending a Guardian Masterclass with senior feature writer Jon Henley. The focus of the class was on feature writing and digital storytelling (I’ll come back to this in a later blog) but it began by exploring why – and how – journalism in the digital age has to be different. 

Jon took us on a whistlestop tour of the major changes in journalism since he began his career (using a typewriter) in the 1980s. Naturally he spoke about the impact of the internet and the widespread use of technology - particularly smart phones – which are enabling billions of people around the world to commit “acts of journalism”. Yes, they comment voraciously on articles all over the web but they also write and publish their own content, upload their own videos and photos, and share them on Facebook, Twitter and a whole host of other social media sites. And of course, they can do it all for free. Why buy a printed paper?

Interesting parallels

As he was speaking I began to ponder the similarities between the evolution of journalism and learning. You can make quite a crude analogy between the way professional journalists used to ‘dispense’ the truth and traditional teaching methods, in which learning is imposed on students and passively absorbed. More specifically, comparisons can also be drawn in relation to digital learning.

Journalists used to decide what the news was, how much it mattered and what we should all think about it. They weren’t the experts but they would rarely be challenged. Occasionally a reader would be irritated or inspired enough by an article to write a letter in response, pointing out an error or sharing an opinion. But letters were carefully selected by the editor, who still had the ultimate power. Now the “people formerly known as the audience” are fact checkers, contributors and distributors. The news article is no longer the final word – it’s the beginning of a multi way debate.

Similarly, when I first started out in elearning, we produced weighty courses (most definitely not resources) on a single CDROM. One version of the truth, based on consultation with one or two experts and limited research. Debate, if it happened, was in accompanying classroom sessions or at the watercooler: it wasn’t encouraged by social learning features on supporting portals and apps. As far as we were aware, there wasn’t much ‘chat’: more like deadly silence. Whilst I think we still have a way to go as regards harnessing the power of social learning, it’s definitely ‘noisier’ these days.

As this video from City & Guilds explains, “how people learn, where they learn and how they’re supported is changing all the time because of technology and social media”, just as the way people consume the news has also changed. The only way forward is to embrace the change and I think we can learn a lot from how journalists like Jon Henley at The Guardian are responding to it.

A brave new world?

There’s been a lot of debate about how the switch to digital consumption has resulted in a dramatic decline in revenue for several sectors. This has affected journalism, and probably even more famously, the music industry. But one of the appealing things about Jon’s class was that he didn’t remotely dwell on the associated negatives. Instead he focused on the opportunities the digital realm offers to change the way we write the ‘news’:

  • A good ‘story’ has always been at the heart of quality journalism, but through social media and open journalism techniques we can now actively involve the public in sourcing the stories that they care about and want to be told.
  • Write well. That may sound obvious but in a digital mass of news stories, we have to work harder to capture someone’s attention (particularly as research suggests that we read faster and less thoroughly online). That means that perhaps now more than ever we should remember the fundamental principles of good storytelling.
  •  Leverage technology to keep people hooked on the story with a series of frequently released blogs which update us on developments. Encourage comment on these and allow the responses to shape what comes next – this will result in deeper, more meaningful experiences. Also use social media to grab the attention of an online audience, seek their input and opinion and reach more people through the avid sharing of content.
  • Enhance the stories with a range of rich media, embedding video, high-end photography and infographics within the article, positioned in context where they add most value. 

The world of learning could benefit hugely from taking similar approaches. Sure, we’re already adopting some of them to an extent, but are we doing it as consistently and coherently as they are in journalism? We use technology to provide content on multiple devices, stagger content releases through managed campaigns, link out to social learning features and incorporate rich media where we can. But if we want our learners to consume our content in the same way they consume the news, we need to do so much more. Reading, sharing and commenting needs to be just as effortless and encouraged.

And Jon’s right to remind us about the importance of good storytelling. CG Kineo have always recognised this (and we’ve blogged about it quite a lot over the years), but the technological changes we’ve experienced in recent years and the insistent, inevitable pressures of project timescales and budgets sometimes distracts us all from what matters most of all when creating any type of content. And that is, quite simply, the importance of compelling writing with a genuine story at its core.

I’ll explore this in more detail in my next blog, along with other ways to take Jon’s insights of successful journalism and apply them to online learning.

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