Thoughts on Medium First journalism

A couple weeks ago (back when I originally meant to write this) Steve Buttry, Director of Community Engagement and Social Media for my employer’s employer Digital First Media, wrote a series of five blog posts about the philosophy and workflow of Digital First journalism.  It’s essentially a blueprint for the company and a road map to what they see as the future of the industry.  (If you’re a journalist and haven’t read them I highly recommend you do so: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 )

I agree with what he says.  It’s all true and it’s all necessary for the survival of print media companies.  (Not for journalism as a whole, that will survive regardless of the medium, but that’s another post entirely.)  I don’t mean for this to be a disagreement with his posts because it’s not; I’m thrilled with Digital First because finally we’re being run by people who get it and for the first time in years it looks like my hometown papers the Contra Costa Times and Oakland Tribune will not just survive but thrive.

That said I do have a fundamental problem with not just the posts but the philosophy in general: The focus is still on the medium rather than on the goal.

Could you imagine if any other industry had such an unwavering focus on the tools rather than the task at hand?  Take framing carpenters for example.  They have a job: To construct the frame of a house.  They use whatever is available to them to construct the sturdiest possible frame as quickly and efficiently as they can.  And that’s it.  How they do it is irrelevant, just that it gets done to their standards.

Compare that to the Print Media Framing Company.  They’ve always used a hammer.  The hammer is romanticized to the point that it’s not a tool; it’s a symbol, an icon.  When the pneumatic nail gun is invented it’s not a way to do a better job in less time, it’s a threat to everything they stand for.  They come up with excuse after excuse why nail guns are a money-losing proposition to resist adopting them.  When new upstart contractors using nail guns poach their customers they respond not by adapting, but by cutting staffing and nail budgets so their hammer-wielding employees can barely meet code let alone do their job well.

After some underfunded and understaffed experiments with nail gun departments equipped with technology several generations old they finally break down, rebrand themselves the Nail Gun Framing Company and declare that they’re using nail guns exclusively.  Employees are told to think, “How can I use a nail gun for this job?”  It’s an improvement but it’s still more about how, the product is still dictated by the process.

Ridiculous, right?  But that’s what we do.  Either we’re the Print Media that prints in print, or we’re Digital First that uses digital and puts online first.  In both the focus is on how we do it.

The focus should be on the destination, not the route.  We should care about the product rather than the tools.  We shouldn’t be print or digital.  We should be Journalism First.

As a journalist my job is to inform people about what’s going on in the world around them.  The average person is too busy living their life to keep up with the constant flow of information generated by their community let alone to personally investigate every instance of corruption.  I’m paid to do exactly that.  If something is going on publicly or covertly that people should know about I let them know.

The tool I use to do that job varies depending on what I’m presenting.  Sometimes a relatively small group of people are actively seeking the information so an article on a web site will find its way to them.  Sometimes people want a second-by-second account of a live event so Twitter is the weapon of choice.  Sometimes there’s a vast amount of information that needs to be streamlined and organized so it needs to be a database or infographic or some other data journalism presentation.  Sometimes it’s off everyone’s radar but needs to be on it so, yes, it should be on A1 of the print edition where people will see it even if they’re not looking for it.

Unfortunately that’s not the universal view.  Many people hear “Digital First” and treat it like their orders.  They waste time on inconsequential stories because that’s what they see on blogs.  They think about what documents they can post to the web site rather than what story they can tell with those documents.  They seek out stories that use digital tools rather than seek out digital tools that help tell a story.  And I don’t blame them for any of that.  They’re putting digital first, just like the company name says.

We need to stop encouraging reporters to think about the medium at all.  If they’re good journalists they’ll seek out the best tools and if they don’t the quality of their work will reflect that.  Let’s stop paying attention to how we do it and just put the best story in front of the people who need to know in the way they want to see it.

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