Digital First, Not Foremost

John Paton

John Paton: Misguided, or misunderstood?

In all the recent debate on the merits of the digital-first strategy for publishers (neatly encapsulated today by Mathew Ingram), there is one strand of discussion that never quite comes to the foreground. Though the phrase digital first is often contrasted with digital only, for many—mostly the critics, but perhaps some of the advocates as well—the implicit message is the same: “Digital rocks! Print sucks!”

To my mind, that’s not what digital first means. The point of the phrase is not about which medium is better. It’s about which medium people use. And that medium is sometimes print, sometimes web, sometimes social, sometimes mobile, sometimes video, sometimes audio. Digital-first is about distributing content through all those media in the most efficient way possible. Digital is first, but not necessarily foremost.

The idea, as I see it, is not to privilege digital media over other forms, but to use a digital workflow to move seamlessly and efficiently from one format to another. That, of course is easier said than done. Alan Mutter puts it plainly:

“Publishers today are struggling to pivot to a new business model that they call ‘digital first’—whatever that means—while managing through the seemingly relentless decline of their existing one. Mastering either of those tasks individually would be daunting. The challenge of doing both at the same time is nothing less than epic.”

As Mutter points out, one reason that newspapers have failed so miserably at the digital transition is that they “unimaginatively tried to export their formerly successful print business model to the digital realm. ” That is, they employed a print-first strategy. And the print model is simply too rigid and too ponderous to be the starting point in modern publishing.

This, I take it, is what Digital First Media CEO John Paton, much criticized of late, is getting at when he said that his “digital first strategy is centered on the cost-effective creation of content and sales and not the legacy modes of production.”

The ultimate goal of digital first should not be to substitute one medium for another, but to achieve medium independence. Technology is shifting ground daily, and the way people interact is changing with it. As publishers, if we want to interact with them, we have to be able to deliver our content when they want it, where they want it, and how they want it. Such dexterity is only possible by going digital first.

Infographics: Not Dead Yet

As the one or two dedicated readers of this blog can attest, my affection for infographics waxes and wanes on a regular basis.

Of late, I’ve been rather down on this graphic approach to conveying complex information. Too often, what information value is contained in the graphic is overwhelmed by cuteness, triteness, or both.

So when one Allison Morris inquired via my contact page (rarely, alas, a reliable source of useful interaction) about promoting an infographic she’d worked on, I was skeptical.  (It was a good sign, though, that she had in fact read at least one post on this blog.)

My fears, happily, were unjustified. I don’t know anything about OnlineClasses.org, but I do like their  flowchart for young jobseekers about what to post or not on their social media accounts. Well done, Allison et al!

To Post or Not to Post To Post or Not to Post Infographic

A Look Inside a B2B Editor’s Head

ASBPE Twitter Chat on Editorial Ethics

If you want to understand the state of mind of the typical journalist today, or to dig into the challenges they face in managing their careers, you don’t have to look far—as long as you mean the typical newspaper journalist.

Although there is plenty of online debate and discussion of journalistic issues, the mass of it concerns the daily press. To learn about how these issues affect the typical magazine journalist, you have to look harder. And if your interest is in trade journalists, well, good luck: they are the profession’s obscurest members.

That’s what makes a recent Twitter chat among B2B editors and writers a valuable resource. Sponsored by the ethics committee of ASBPE, an association for trade press editors and writers, the chat showcased the issues that particularly worry them.

Despite its length, I urge you to read through my Storified archive of the chat. The discussion is frustratingly fractured and incomplete (it’s Twitter, after all), but it will give you a good sense of the issues that keep trade editors up at night:

  • Preventing undue influence by advertisers (given the nature of B2B publishing, this topic was front and center).
  • Dealing with insufficient staffing and hiring.
  • Finding the proper level of involvement with marketing (particularly in sponsored webinars, a medium uniquely popular in trade publishing).
  • Managing freelancers, particularly with respect to expectations regarding plagiarism and attribution.
  • Effectively using ethics guidelines like ASBPE’s Guide to Preferred Editorial Practices.
  • Understanding the proper relationship between professional and personal use of social media.
These concerns are not unique to B2B journalists, of course. But the way they play out in the trade-press arena is in some ways very different from the rest of journalism. This twitter chat only gives a hint of that important difference—but it’s a start.

Are You Highly Digital? Try This Test

Ipad Face by Camila Andrea In a Harvard Business Review blog post discussed last week by Mark Schaefer, authors Jeffrey Rayport and Tuck Rickards asserted that most big companies are too far behind the digital curve. By their standards, only nine of the Fortune 500 corporations are highly digital.

That’s no surprise. But what interests me is the four-part test they use to assess companies. Could it be adapted to individuals as a way of testing their own digital chops, I wonder?

The authors’ four criteria for highly digital companies are pretty straightforward:

  1. The company generates a high percentage of revenues digitally.
  2. Its leadership has deep digital experience.
  3. It does business enabled by digital channels.
  4. It is seen as transformational within its industry.

I’m not sure Rayport and Rickards sufficiently explain these criteria, but it doesn’t matter. My concern here is with adapting these four tests to individuals—and particularly to editors and journalists.

So let’s say, then, that you can consider yourself highly digital if you meet the following versions of their four characteristics:

  1. Most of the work you do appears in digital form either first or exclusively. Most of what you earn you only earn because your copy appeared online.
  2. You generate your work on your own, with little need for assistance, using a variety of digital tools. You manage your CMS yourself, you are equally comfortable tweeting and posting on Facebook, you even adjust code occasionally.
  3. Your work is uniquely digital in nature. In other words, you are not simply producing second-stage shovelware, but genuinely digital content, shaped to take full advantage of its digital medium.
  4. The people you work with look to you as a model of digital competence. Others come to you not just for help using WordPress or sizing an image, but also for advice on their new-media careers.

You may be wondering, “Is all this necessary? Why do I need to determine how digital I am?”

The answer, for me, is similar to what Schaefer says about companies: “social media success is not going to be a function of marketing vision or budget. It’s going to rely on radical organizational transformation.”

Likewise, for traditional journalists, the only way to ensure a healthy career in the new-media era is to undergo a radical professional transformation. My proposed test doubtless needs work—please pitch in with suggestions or improvements in the comments below or elsewhere—but its intent is sound.

Are you highly digital? If you’re not certain of the answer, maybe it’s time to find out.

Photo by Camila Andrea via Flickr

Journalism, Professionalism, and the Turing Test

What’s the way forward for journalists? Doubling down on the traditional ideals of objectivity and impartiality? Embracing the subjective, personality-driven approach of social media? Or is there some uncertain, ill-defined middle way?

Turing Test By Bilby (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThose are some of the questions being raised recently by a number of new-media observers, most notably GigaOm’s Mathew Ingram, who’s lately been rolling out one must-read blog post after another.

The problem with traditional news is that traditional journalists are increasingly unnecessary to produce it. Robot reporters are cornering the market on facts, as companies like Narrative Science and Automated Insights perfect the science of teaching software to turn data into news stories.

If basic news becomes a fungible commodity, one obvious alternative for journalists is what Ben Huh says great reporters already do: convey not simply the facts, but their subjective emotions about those facts.  But this, he says, is a “very, very dangerous” approach.

That’s one lesson that could be drawn from reporter Anne Sutherland’s recent suspension from the Montreal Gazette for remarks she made on Twitter. Covering a “nearly naked” protest by university students, she tweeted a number of photos of the protestors accompanied by “snarky” comments about their physiques. Neither her Twitter followers nor her employers found it amusing.

Writing about Ben Huh, GigaOm’s Ingram says that “in order to be effective, journalism needs to be personal.” But doesn’t Sutherland’s seemingly personal reaction to the protestors prove the opposite, and that the dangers of being personal outweigh the benefits?

I think not. I don’t know her, of course, but I’d guess the problem isn’t that she was being human or that she was being too personal. Rather, she was responding to the wrong instincts and emotions.  She was there as a journalist, but reacting as an average, and thoughtless, bystander.

In a post written before Sutherland’s misstep, Steve Buttry addressed a similar issue in explaining “how to respond to staff members who were using crude language and behaving unprofessionally on Twitter.” On social media, he says, journalists must be personable, yes, but also professional:

“A professional journalist using Twitter should behave professionally. Your profile should identify you as a journalist with your news organization. You should behave accordingly.”

I don’t disagree. But I wonder if professionalism is sufficient. The problem for me is that professionalism is more shield than guiding light. Too often, it is just a way of doing what won’t get you fired.

To succeed in a personal medium, you ultimately need a personal standard. The preeminent question to ask yourself now may not be Is this a professional and objective statement of the facts? but rather Is this my best, most honest, and most personally true assessment of those facts?

This might not seem like the appropriate corrective to the all-too-personal Sutherland. But I suspect her reactions were not truly personal. They sound, rather, like received views, the trite and formulaic reactions not of a person, but of a type of person. It is a behavioral response that could be easily programmed into a Narrative Science algorithm: If see hairy body, then tweet “Ewww.”

In gauging how to handle social media, maybe what journalists need is not so much a standard of professionalism as a kind of Turing test. That is, could what you’re writing be produced by a computer imitating a human reporter?

The test is not whether the content is dryly factual or snarkily silly, superbly impartial or grossly biased. Those traits are easy to replicate. Instead, the test should be whether the prose is truly personal. Does it reflect a real consciousness struggling to find the truth, or an automaton juggling ones and zeroes?

Such a test can never be very precise. But journalism, whether conducted in traditional or social media, would be the better for it.