It's that time of the year again, when we should pause and reflect on the media trends of 2016 and how they manifested themselves in reality, on the media's successes and failures in the past twelve months – for there are many – and on what may come next year.
There is no shortage of predictions online, from those focused on a closer link between journalists and their readers, to those promoting verification and more audience-funded business models for media.
At Journalism.co.uk this December, we collated a list of questions journalists and editors should ask themselves before embarking on a new editorial project, to determine whether the direction and the approach to the story is the best it can be.
For some inspiration in 2017, check out the insights from experts below – each question is followed by an explanation from the journalist who suggested it as to why that particular element is important to clarify, and what impact it can have on the story.
"This is the question I try to ask most often," explains Tobin.
"Objective journalism – the kind that doesn’t take a stance on one side or another – can still be functional and useful for people making decisions, building relationships, or having an argument with a boss, or, yes, making their way to a polling place.
"The follow up questions from there: How does whatever we're making fit into someone’s life? Is it a delivery mechanism – i.e., text messages instead of a link somewhere – or a larger question of relevance? Sure, we could have a huge scoop on a big swath of the country, but will a tweet storm really reach the people who care? If not, why do those people care? Where are they talking about it already? What will fit into that space? If we’ve identified a pattern, is there utility in creating a space where they can talk to one another? What should our role be in making that happen? And so on."
"The answer can be both – it’s never wrong to be proud of what you do – but especially when it comes to community-and-engagement projects, you can’t just build something because it looks impressive and expect to see impact.
"On a functional level, this is where articulated goals and clear metrics become really important. We’ve got a lot of Google docs going. On a more philosophical level, this is where it’s key to have a team whose point of view you trust and respect from the get-go – where it’s OK to make mistakes in pursuit of something larger. No 360 interactive VR responsive magical mystery podcast data machine in the world can make up for that."
What audience are we doing this project for? – John Crowley, editor-in-chief, International Business Times UK
"It sounds like digital journalism 101 - but the question serves an important purpose. Sometimes missionary zeal or a personal interest on the part of a reporter can cloud judgements when taking on big editorial ventures. Very early on in the project's genesis, the question should be asked: 'Is there a potential audience out there?'. If the audience just happens to be the reporter, his friends and family, or a narrow social milieu of friends - then we should consider very carefully whether to proceed.
"This project on the 100th anniversary of the Trans-Siberian Railway was a good example. There is a big community of people that are obsessed by rail travel – and just as large a community who are enthralled by Russia. But it wasn't just a travel piece. We dug out some salient data on what a crucial role this line plays to the Russian economy too. That meant we hit a lot of audience sweet spots."
What is the mindset of the audience that this project will fit with? – Trushar Barot, mobile editor, BBC World Service
"At our various language news teams across BBC World Service, we’re becoming more focused on understanding the mindset of our users at any given time they consume our content. For example, are they looking to kill time? Or are they wanting to be informed or entertained?
"If we’re clear about this, then other aspects such as what the right format is, the best time to publish and what the best length and style of the content should be follows more naturally. It could be that we want the project to hit multiple mindsets, but even that awareness will help us focus on what formats work best for which types of users based on how they are feeling."
What is the right format for each piece? – Chris Moran, editor strategic projects, Guardian News and Media
"Too often we allow ourselves to make assumptions about what digital means. We're still discovering what the medium can do and, of course, its capabilities are continually changing. So it's not surprising that often the industry's choice of format, especially for significant projects, involves no choice at all: we just do everything at once.
"The signature piece here is a long read spattered with video, images and interactive elements, and forced into a shape that most resembles a moving magazine spread. And in almost every example I've seen in seven years and across every major site, this approach fails to engage readers at length. I desperately want to see the end of this format.
"It's time for us to become more mature and more judicious with the tools we have. The great unbundling of the digital age is actually an opportunity: let's consider each individual piece across a particular project, fit it to the correct format and link intelligently to help people discover more. Then let's use the extraordinary data most publishers have at their fingertips to genuinely gauge whether we succeeded in our aims."
What is the best user experience of this project on a mobile device? – Subhajit Banerjee, international product manager, mobile, Condé Nast International
"Words are still very powerful and we can do a lot with them even on a small screen, but we still haven’t solved many basic usability issues. For instance, when a user comes in via search or social to read a particular piece, are they able to read it distraction-free or are they straightaway bombarded with overlays to sign up for newsletters and other clutter? What happens if it is a long read – how do we make it easier for the reader to return to where they left off?"
How do we make the greatest impact on the user? – Subhajit Banerjee, international product manager, mobile, Condé Nast International
"There are the obvious complements to text such as tables (e.g. ranking of most polluted cities of the world) and calculators (e.g. how am I affected by budget announcements or cuts in local councils) but also photo essays, before-and-after interactive galleries, video and perhaps the most high-impact format of late – virtual reality. VR is in its infancy but as a couple of projects have already shown, if done right, they let the user literally ‘live’ the story.
"Needless to say, making these ‘mobile friendly’ is not good enough, they need to be ‘mobile first’. And we can offer a more luxurious experience for the first-world user with near-broadband connectivity and high-end devices, but for those on low-spec devices and barely-3G connection, the fall-back experience should be equally rewarding."
Is this piece of journalism too complicated for readers on social media? What "halo content" can we create to further amplify the message of this piece? – Denise Law, community editor, The Economist
'"Halo content' is an internal term we've invented to describe social-native or social-only material that is created by our team to promote print content. A good example of this is what we're doing on Medium, where we're writing exclusive content for that platform that sheds light on the stories behind the stories.
"A lot of 'halo content' is supplementary. It's meant to be adapted for that particular platform and serve as an extension of content that appears in print. Economist Zoom is another example. They're supplementary social stories (or halo content) that show readers we have people on the ground."
Does this video project have a shelf life? – John Crowley, editor-in-chief, International Business Times UK
"Breaking news is meat and drink to IBtimes.co.uk, but a quick video news hit that quickly goes out of date isn't much use to readers playing catch up – or to the newsroom either. Particularly with videos, long-tail explainers do a public service and can be used throughout scores of articles. Or the videos can stand on their own two feet. We've embraced the video explainer this year from 'How Blockchain will change your life' to a 'History of the DRC'. For both of these videos we used Adobe After Effects animation to bring the videos to life and make them more shareable."
Who else should know about this idea? – Elite Truong, product manager of partner platforms, Vox Media
"Here’s where things get tricky in the usual process of pitching an idea and having one person own the story: the only resources you have is that person’s ideas, time, creativity and experience, and their editor’s feedback. Developing acquaintances across teams really helps in this case; the story owner can talk out loud and sharpen their ideas with co-workers on product, sales, marketing and design. There doesn’t need to be a formal meeting soliciting advice, or the threat of someone wanting to take over or change the story, but there might be good ideas that make the story better by being questioned by people outside of the everyday newsroom."
What are our resources? – Elite Truong, product manager of partner platforms, Vox Media
"Resources mean time, people, energy and due process. This is the execution part of the brilliant idea – how do you follow through to make sure embarking on this project is doable for your team, the amount of time they have, and the effort needed to pull this off while respecting that they all need time and energy to do many other things at work? Are the resources you’re putting into this story or package or product worth the payoff or expected audience effect? The closer you can get to saying 'yes,' the easier it is to prioritise this project for your team when many other important things arise."
Will we need to develop an out of the ordinary workflow to tell this story? And, if we do, can we measure this new method correctly? – Konstantinos Antonopoulos, senior interactive producer, Al Jazeera English
"In a typical meeting, we go through pitches, establish a way to narrate a story and assign a templated method of work. And other times we spar out with 'what if?' scenarios; we’ve gone through experimental forms of storytelling – as innovative as speed reading, as experimental as working with new visual formats, as subtle as overlaying narration to the visuals, as silly as narrating long forms with emojis.
"Nothing is off limits when it comes to storytelling, provided that it makes sense to the readers and we have a way to measure their engagement accurately. There is no use in spending time to put technology or ideas into a piece if we have no clue if they like or hate it. If we cannot tell the difference, we will not use it."
Do we expect to follow up with this story at a later date? Do we plan to go back after some time and see what was its impact and how it changed people’s lives? – Konstantinos Antonopoulos, senior interactive producer, Al Jazeera English
"There’s no ending to a story when the credits roll. In fact, there are two more stops after that:
the state of our characters when we left them (How are they changed through this story? Will they continue on this path? What does the future hold for them?);
the audience’s reaction to the story (Were they connected with their adventures? Did the readers follow their path to the end? Are they moved by their actions? Are they reacting on social media, are they curious to find out more?).
"There are cases where we see value in following a story after it’s published – either on social level, on another interactive project or on another format, like TV, programmes or documentaries."
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