Monday, September 13, 2010

Digital Innovation Needed Wherever Information is Produced, Not Just Newsrooms

by Jeff Stanger

New skill development, capacity building, innovation and creativity in digital rendering are needed wherever information is created, not just in newsrooms, and particularly within organizations that are increasingly direct information providers on issues of vital public importance.

I returned from vacation to a nice writing assignment brought on by two good pieces on digital news and information. First was PBS MediaShift's September 9 post on training "programmer-journalists" at Columbia and Northwestern. The second was a new Pew Research Center report on news consumption released over the weekend, including an accompanying commentary by Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The MediaShift piece discusses some important developments in the training at our nation's top journalism schools, specifically the move to combine traditional journalism with skills in digital development to create "programmer-journalists." Columbia has done it through a joint degree between their schools of journalism and computer science. Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism has started a program to teach the combined skills of programming and journalism to create "bilingual" graduates, as program director Rich Gordon puts it.

Meantime, the Pew Research Center released its biennial report on news consumption, and no surprise digital means continue their rise. A majority of Americans, 57%, now regularly use a digital source for news. Nearly half, 46%, get news online at least three times per week, up from 37% in 2008 and compared to only 2% when the survey began in 1995.

In a commentary appendix to the report, Rosenstiel makes some important observations about the maturing digital environment. I've highlighted some particularly important parts:

In the last two years, people have begun to do more than replace old news platforms with new ones. Instead, the numbers suggest that people are beginning to exploit the capacity of the technology to interact with information differently.

Why have we moved into this new phase -- where people are not simply replacing old technologies with new but using new ones for different things or in different ways, augmenting their more traditional behavior?

One explanation is that the content is changing. News producers are beginning to understand how they can deliver news in new ways to create new understanding, whether through the use of online graphics, customizing news to fit a consumer's interest or location, or recognizing the public as a community that participates in the news rather than an audience that receives it. Another factor is improved connections and faster speeds that bring the technology's potential to life. A third is that consumers themselves are changing, recognizing that each platform has its own unique strengths and weaknesses.

The Pew Research data suggest that it is no longer sufficient for news organizations to be in the business of distributing static text — "stories" — online; that successful digital information needs to use the unique capabilities of the media in which it lives. The fantastic interactive packages and applications developed by the New York Times, USA Today, the Guardian and others, are evidence that the commercial journalism industry, despite its struggles in some sectors, gets that. Creating such products requires new skills, a situation that the Columbia and Medill programs are trying to address.

So what's the problem? The problem is that news media organizations aren't the only information sources out there. We cannot lose sight of the broader information landscape by focusing exclusively on digital news. As the traditional news industry downsizes, and technology changes people's information consumption in volume and venue, the role of non-media, non-commercial sources of information is taking on new importance. Research shows that people are increasingly bypassing traditional media and going directly to the source. In the realm of public policy in particular, this trend thrusts government agencies, think tanks, foundations, nonprofits and academic institutions into the information spotlight in our dialogues on issues such as health care, the economy, education, the environment, national security, and international development.

If it is no longer viable for news organizations to adhere to the static text status quo, why is that outdated approach sufficient for non-media information sources? The answer is simple: it's not. While information consumers diversify their digital platforms and tap (quite literally) their unique capabilities, the tendency of non-media sources to operate from a digital playbook circa 1995 poses a serious threat to the credibility, authority, and impact of a critical body of knowledge.

To solve this problem, we need training not just of programmer-journalists, but also of programmer-researchers, programmer-philanthropists, programmer-public officials, programmer-advocates, and programmer-educators. New skill development, capacity building, innovation and creativity in digital rendering are needed wherever information is created, not just in newsrooms, and particularly within organizations that are increasingly direct information providers on issues of vital public importance.

Comments welcome...