Credit: Photo by 贝莉儿 DANIST on Unsplash

Journalism needs to move with the times. Not just now with the economic challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic but also in the long term as we seek to stay relevant to our audiences.

Both legacy and digital-first news organisations are thinking deeply about their long-term survival. But this should not come at the cost of editorial integrity, according to Gary Liu, CEO of South China Morning Post (SCMP), speaking at International Press Institute's World Congress 2020 yesterday.

"Balance is still sacrosanct," he says. "I'm afraid that we are throwing away the fundamentals of how to get the story."

Liu added that in a world of polarised opinions and 'alternative facts', news organisations have a great responsibility to make sure they are getting on the phone to sources to double-check information and doing all they can to bust their own assumptions and get all accounts of the story.

"We can’t lose the cornerstone of what we do," adds Lauren Williams, senior vice-president and editor-in-chief of Vox, the digital-first US media company. Being overly friendly with advertisers and cosying up to politicians are amongst the concerns she shares for this generation of news companies.

In the US, Williams continued, balance and objectivity around reporting on race will be crucial in the times ahead. She challenged news organisations to consider what neutrality means beyond the white, male perspective.

"There's this perception that to be neutral, you have to lose your history, cultural knowledge, experiences and ancestral history, and that is something at tension right now [in the US]."

Translating missions into new mediums

According to Liu, sustainability in the long term means doubling-down on your mission and translating it to new mediums. For SCMP, a 116-year-old newspaper, its USP has always been its 'unique vantage point' on China.

"Our value is that we are a window into a closed information system," he says. "China is going to be the biggest story of our lifetime, with its rising impact and influence."

He targets video, audio, data and evergreen knowledge as a way to carry forward its mission as an international specialist title on the country. The newspaper has also returned to a digital subscription model earlier than anticipated.

"If we can express our value to the world through all those information channels, then it presents an opportunity to make money across all the channels."

While SCMP did not have the "luxury of a blank page reinvention", digital-first organisations have the ability to reimagine journalism from the get-go.

Vox has done that through its stance on explainer content, said Williams. The coverage on recent California wildfires, for instance, focused on what caused the fire, rather than the fire itself. This way it is distinct from local news organisations but also the big nationals.

"We can coexist with any competitor, with the New York Times or The Washington Post because we provide something different."

In recent years, Vox has launched the Netflix science and nature documentary series Explained and more recently a coronavirus explainer series, Answered, on streaming service Quibi.

Add to that a contribution platform as a first foray into consumer revenue and virtual events throughout the covid-19 period and it appears that Vox is using as many digital tools at its disposal as it gets.

Learning from mistakes and trusting your gut

But not everything is a flying success and admitting mistakes can help you create better news products.

Vox, for instance, had invested heavily into a Snapchat Discover account but as teams were not used to vertical video, the content did not fit.

"It ended up being a diluted Vox product," says Williams, adding that she learned to appreciate when teams do - and do not - have the bandwidth to commit to a project, and how to time decisions better.

Sometimes you do also have to trust your gut. The oft-cited failure of pivoting to video was ignored by SCMP, who instead chose to commit heavily. It recently announced it has surpassed 1 billion lifetime YouTube views - 970 million in three years.

"We always felt explaining China to the world required visuals," said Liu, adding that it appeals because many people do not get to go to China and certain contexts are easier and quicker to grasp in a video format.

Dealing with pushback

Nearly every innovation is met with some form of resistance and managing people's expectation is part of the success.

"News organisations are defined by their scepticism," said Liu. SCMP moved into a purpose-built brand new office a few years ago to support more creative forms of journalism. Employees were quick to question the outlay but after seeing how it contributed to a better work environment they have since come around.

As for Williams, when met with a lack of enthusiasm from her colleagues, it is worth to take time to spell out the benefits of the decision.

"[You have to help] people feel that these decisions are strategic and [explain] why we are doing it and how it matters to their job," she concludes.

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