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How Journalists Can Harness the Power of Digital Narratives

Posted: 20/06/2012 02:40

Here's the deal. These days, when a news firm puts out a recruitment ad for a reporter, they are not just asking for a writer. They most likely also want a blogger and a tweeter, who may even code and design, all rolled into one package deal.

Interview questions increasingly revolve around one's social media presence: do you have a blog? Are you familiar with Photoshop, or HTML? How popular was your latest tweet?

The heralding of the information age has brought with it a revolution in the world of news. No doubt, journalistic practices have been given a real shake-up, and the marriage between journalism and technology continues to be celebrated in newsrooms everywhere.

Why? Because breaking news uploads, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and the influx of other digital networks are not killing journalism, but enriching it.

However, this huge shift from print and broadcast to online is ongoing, and for reporters to survive this transition, they need to possess a bigger toolkit of job skills. Journalists may now be required to talk to - not at - audiences of millions, and must be able to define themselves as multimedia experts, capable of crafting many narratives for one story.

In essence, news outlets suggest that it is no longer enough to be able to write or know your way around the AP Stylebook, and call for employees to seize the power of digital storytelling.

The influence of Twitter

Twitter has levelled the playing field for all reporters. As long as you have Internet access, you can easily break news. Although Twitter itself cannot be classed as 'journalism', it has proven itself to be an efficacious device, aiding journalists everywhere.

Ryan Sholin, the director of news innovation at Publish2, was one of the first to put together a simple guide on how to gather and report news with Twitter, whilst Mashable have also created a more thorough guide on Twitter's potential as an important journalistic instrument.

Both authors express the belief that it isn't just about having a blog or possessing a Twitter feed, it's about how journalists use such mediums to engage with their audiences and connect with their sources.

Nevertheless, the legitimacy of Twitter in the world of journalism is still questionable.

No doubt, our tenured j-school professors would still ask journalists everywhere to verify tweets and investigate all the evidence before breaking news or publishing content.

Hackers and hacks

Today, there seems to be some consensus surrounding the skill du jour for journalists: programming.

"I would argue that today, every journalist ought to understand basic principles of programming to know what's possible," states Rich Gordon, director of digital innovation at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.

As we fundamentally begin to think differently about the way in which news is presented, adopting new, unique skills as a reporter will eventually pay off in the long run. However, the main reason to learn programming as a journalist is not just to add another line to your CV.

When covering stories, one also has to deal with information overload. Huge quantities of data need to be sifted through, and tracking the most popular news trends can be very difficult. Such tasks can seem daunting, but applying your programming skills here can be tremendously useful.

Roland Legrand over at PBS suggests that when journalists are able to establish a link between programming and the content of news, they can "start looking for data structures, for ways to manipulate data (in a good sense) to make them work for your community."

Legrand goes on to argue: "You'll see data everywhere -- from the kind that floats in the air thanks to augmented reality, to the more mundane version contained in endless streams of status updates."

Although not all reporters will necessarily benefit from learning to code, there's no doubt that as technology advances, so must our understanding of it.

Essentially, journalism now also involves enhancing the visual side of information, and incorporating interactive tools into stories requires an interest in web design.

As we devote more time to creating non-linear narratives, acquiring a basic knowledge of CSS, HTML and Java Script is fast becoming invaluable. Even possessing only an amateur level of coding means you already have a sharper skill set compared to others in the same newsroom.

Constructing multimedia narratives

Whilst the written word continues to underpin blogging and tweeting, in order to produce the most thorough of news reports, design plays a crucial role in digital storytelling.

Neal Ungerleider is a reporter for business-focused magazine, Fast Company, and specialises in 'covering the intersection of science, technology, society, and geopolitics.' In his own words, he states: "The more technical skills a journalist has, the more adept they are at telling stories... and the better career prospects they have."

He is part of the growing number of journalists who believes that as reporters find new ways to unearth scoops and spot news, they must also continue to practice a process of story development.

So, what about the lesser known digital media platforms such as Pinterest or Bundlr? In light of Ungerleider's advice, how can they help journalists today?

In essence, both can be used by journalists to bookmark and organise interesting or relevant content. Pinterest almost makes practicing web journalism an art form; reporters are able to discover trending news stories, create virtual storyboards, exhibit their work or produce a portfolio.

Users are allowed to generate visually-appealing pinboards, which can document important news through images or videos; this feature is vital in making the news more accessible and interesting to the average news consumer.

And, according to freelance journalist Alexandre Gamela: "Bundlr wasn't intended to be a journalism tool but journalists can take advantage of its features for their everyday work. Besides gathering different social media and online contents like photos, videos and tweets to present in a single page, it can be used privately for research and brainstorming to write articles."

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Pinterest and Bundlr already have real potential as tools to aggregate dynamic and newsworthy content, and both continue to gain clout in the world of social media.

It seems like the possibilities for digital storytelling are almost endless: organising data visualisations, uploading interactive charts, maps, audio and video clips, sourcing reliable infographics, the list goes on.

John Bracken, director of Journalism and Media Innovaton at Knight Foundation, recently declared that "print is the new vinyl." Bracken may have a point.

Journalists must come to understand that as new technology emerges, our methods of communication only continue to expand. And those who cannot adapt may be left behind.

 
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