At a conference designed to show the abilities and dedication of students as the future of media, and to create a space where student led solutions could be found to the many challenges facing modern media, it is funny to come away both inspired and very uncertain whether making a living once I graduate from student media into the real world, will be possible.
The National Media Conference that took place in Trinity last Saturday offered rooms full of student journalists a lot to think about. Whether you are mostly based in print, radio or screen, there was much to take in, though my interest largely lay in print. Kevin O’Sullivan, editor of the Irish Times opened the day with a talk about his paper’s recent redesign.
Inspired by the necessity to engage with and adapt to the digital age, they reduced the paper’s size and have been changing the way they decide their content to reflect what their readers are looking for. This followed the release of a new ad built around the slogan: The Story of Why.
O’Sullivan proclaimed himself to be a ‘digital optimist’ who was “honed out of print journalism”, but acknowledged that the days where newspapers tell you the news is well and truly over. That was the concept behind the ad campaign: that you can find the who, what, when and where of any story from any media source online, but that people still buy newspapers to discover the why. People will no longer pay for the what, but there’s an element of trust between consumers and their newspaper of choice that drives them back to the print edition to get opinion and analysis: the why. He summed it up by saying that when he wanted to know he reads irishtimes.com, but when he wants to understand, he’ll go straight for the printed version.
The Director of News Services for Storyful Claire Wardle, the only female speaker I saw at the event, was there to extol the many benefits journalists can gain from the internet, so long as they’re prepared to put all information through traditional verification processes. She made an interesting point, in highlighting that journalists, particularly those with more traditional values, are getting increasingly upset that people are now sharing news with each other, rather than directing it towards media institutions. For example, Barack Obama was the first person to tweet his own re-election, with CNN only broadcasting it seconds later.
It was a theme that came up a number of times throughout the day: that the role of journalists is now much more demanding, given the multiplicity of sources there are now available, and how much the audience wants to be involved. With Twitter and an infinite capacity to comment online on every topic imaginable, people want to be heard, and they don’t want it to be the next day, on the letters to the editor page.
Audiences want to be involved pre- and post-production. Every minute, 72 hours of content is uploaded to YouTube, and 100,000 tweets are sent. Journalists are expected to find what’s useful amid all of that, verify it, do it faster than ever before, and engage the audience as much as possible throughout the process.
With almost all of this based online, it seems almost silly to exclude the ‘why’ from the online remit. If you can trust an online-only media source to tell you the news, why can’t you trust those same people to understand what they’re publishing? Why is it that once you put it on a physical piece of paper that it becomes credible?
If the Irish Times went online-only in the morning, its journalists wouldn’t suddenly become witless fools who can’t tell the wind from the trees, simply because their articles are now published through a different medium. Their skills remain the same, or more likely, they need infinitely more skills and to be able to use most of them at once, in order to be able to incorporate the infinite amount more expected of journalists online.
Sure, there is the trust between print media and consumers that is so often talked about, but I think consumers trust media brands, more than the actual print edition. They trust the Irish Times as a whole, not the paper it’s printed on. Some may enjoy having a physical paper to read, and would probably complain if they found it had disappeared from shelves in the morning, but I don’t think that they would assume the entire organisation was incapable because they’re based solely online.
Obviously, there are financial issues. I think it’s easily assumed that the Irish Times isn’t ready to go online-only right now, in a financial sense. The revenue they take in from their website is presumably not yet surpassing that earned from the print edition, and to take away one of those streams of income, particularly the larger one, would obviously cause concern for the future of their business. And ‘The Story of Why’ is certainly a marketing campaign aimed at selling more papers, in a time when less and less people choose to do so.
It’s a clever campaign, and certainly something that I would have believed in had I not spent the day thinking it through. Why should the ‘why’ be the sole preserve of papers? Staff writer at TheJournal.ie Gavan Reilly made the point that if we woke up on an alien planet in the morning and had to start society from scratch, there’s no way we’d start printing newspapers. Technology has progressed far further than that, so why would we?
We would do everything online, and that includes the ‘why’. While print newspapers can no longer keep up in terms of the ‘what’, in terms of the news, as we are provided with an excellent platform online to break news far more speedily than perhaps we should be allowed, the digital ‘why’ from the same credible sources we all know and trust, has no reason to be ignored.