It took decades for television news to find its own language: the first television news broadcast was read over a black screen – it was a radio broadcast without pictures. It took decades for broadcasting to develop a truly televisual language.
Midway through the second decade of the life of online journalism we are still looking at that metaphorical black screen. Journalists can feel liberated by mobile technology, and excited by the surfeit of information at our fingertips from social media to search engines – but they remain largely tied to print and broadcast processes and structures. Despite pronouncements about the death of the story, it dominates almost everything that they do.
A recent spat between two journalism educators is indicative of the complex issues that online journalism presents and the divisiveness of much of the discussion. Jeff Jarvis, impishly suggesting "The article as luxury or byproduct", looked at examples of Twitter reporting and live-blogging.
"Some news events (should we still be calling them stories?) are better told in process. Some need summing up as articles. That is an extra service to readers. A luxury, perhaps."
This provoked an impassioned response from Frédéric Filloux in guardian.co.uk in which he defended articles in online journalism and the need for background paragraphs, not just links.
"I'm careful to remind aspiring reporters that live blogging or compulsive tweeting is not the essence of journalism, merely a tool – sometimes an incredibly efficient one – created by modern internet technology. The article actually is the essence of journalism. And by no means a "byproduct of the process"."
And so, like a bad dream, we return to the "what is journalism" debate and "what can online deliver".
For those of us teaching online journalism, the challenge is that there are so many things to do with that black screen. Journalism is – and still can be – many different things. But first comes the story and then how to best tell it. For Jarvis, the article is just part of the mix.
So, there are the multiple types of media that we can use to tell a story – online video, podcasting, and images, all of which borrow from broadcasting and print principles but also differ in key ways when used and consumed online. And audio slideshows and maps – web-native forms with their own rules.
Then there is the text itself – how to optimise it so that it is more easily found; how to write for the screen, or for social platforms like blogs and Twitter, or for live stories.
And finally there are the opportunities for newsgathering and collaboration: interacting with users around the web and creating a healthy environment for interaction on your own; crowdsourcing and campaigning; dealing with large datasets and the new tools for interrogating and visualising them.
Online journalism is still in its infancy and journalists are still experimenting. They are also being called upon to innovate and create digital products. For the new generation of journalists this creates a huge challenge. Students are still taught news values, law, public affairs and shorthand. And while employers say they want journalists who can spot a story they are increasingly demanding about the skills they want them to have. Do they know how to produce stories in video and audio? Can they dig into data? What ideas do they have to drive traffic and create revenue?
For those of us teaching this new generation and writing books on online journalism, the "digital first" era is an exciting opportunity. But the "story first" approach is more likely to define online journalism. More importantly, readers have the same tools at their disposal and may well have the last say in what is and what is not journalism.
Image by Funkdooby on Flickr. Some rights reserved.