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Publishing industry thought-leader says that journalists have roles to play in collaborating with and organizing communities - and the article is just part of the mix.

Piers Fawkes, PSFK
  • 27 june 2011

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This article titled “Digital first: what it means for journalism” was written by Jeff Jarvis, for The Guardian on Sunday 26th June 2011 18.00 UTC

The article is no longer the atomic unit of news. It’s not dead. I didn’t kill it. But in the age of online – of “digital first,” as the Guardian defined its strategy this month – we should reconsider the article and its place. No longer do the means of production and distribution of media necessitate boxing the world into neat, squared-off spaces published once a day and well after the fact. Freed of print’s strictures, we are finding many new and sometimes better ways to gather and share information.

Consider Andy Carvin (@acarvin), the National Public Radio social strategist who has been tweeting and retweeting news from the Arab spring, up to 1,300 times in a day. He adds journalistic value: finding witnesses who are on the ground and tapping into their networks; vetting facts and debunking rumours; assigning users to translate videos; adding context – but writing no articles.

Carvin is not necessary to the flow of news; witnesses are already sharing what they know without him. See also Texas Tribune, where a majority of traffic goes not to articles but to searchable databases where readers-cum-users dig up facts. In this way, news mimics the architecture of the internet: end-to-end, witness-to-world, without a central gatekeeper. Carvin used his crowd to unmask the jailed Syrian lesbian blogger Amina as an American man. “Twitter,” he tweeted, “is the best tool in the world for debunking rumours and hoaxes.”

Look also to live blogging. In a presentation at South by Southwest in March, the Guardian’s deputy editor, Ian Katz, said devoting writers to live blogging drives much traffic but is expensive to produce. True, I answered, but writing articles is also expensive, becoming only more costly as news organisations operate with ever-scarcer resources.

So we must question the best use of those resources. I say reporting is our highest journalistic priority. Telling stories will always have a role. But journalists have more roles to play today. When working in collaboration with the public – which can help news become at once more expansive and less expensive – it may be useful to help collaborators improve what they do: journalist as community organiser, journalism teacher, support system.

At every turn, the question must be where can I add the greatest value? Is that necessarily in writing articles? One way to answer that question would be to audit the articles we are served today, especially in local papers. How many repeat news we already know? How many are rewritten from wire services and press releases for the sake of producing a byline? How much space is taken up with background paragraphs – which inevitably tell some readers too little and the rest too much? Couldn’t that need be better served with links to a constantly updated archive of recent history and in-depth explainers?

Yes, articles continue. But now I believe they should be treated either as valued luxuries that are worth the use of precious resources, or as by-products of a news process that can produce them more efficiently.

Postmedia, the Canadian newspaper company, made articles the by-products of its recent national election coverage. The company had its reporters on campaign buses feed Twitter and Tumblr and post photos and videos all day, increasing the coverage and its currency. A “twin” back at Postmedia’s news service – like the rewrite man of old (the job description died before the job title could be updated to “rewrite person”) – turned these reports into blog posts and then, at the end of the day, into articles.

Editors tell me (I’m an adviser) that conversion from blog post to print article mainly entailed adding background paragraphs. In this example, the article no longer drove the process. Now the process was pre-eminent. That’s digital first.

When I blogged about the article as luxury or by-product, I plucked a nerve for sure. Some reaction was constructive. Entrepreneur Jonathan Glick celebrated the notion that articles would no longer be captive to delivering news nuggets. Freed from that drudgery, articles could aim for greater depth, perspective, context (and length – though I quibble with the notion that “long-form journalism” is necessarily smarter journalism).

Blogger Amy Gahran suggested we should look at news as a collection of pieces of Lego that can be stacked into many shapes. She wants to make better use of the “cutting-room floor of journalism” strewn with facts, interviews, anecdotes, and insights that don’t make it into an article, all “missed opportunities to engage readers”.

But in other quarters, you’d have thought that by rethinking the article, I had kidnapped mom and poisoned her apple pie. Blogger Mathew Ingram accused me of trying to replace articles with tweets, which I was not. The French media executive Frédéric Filloux labelled me a “digital media zealot” who “smokes his own exhaust” and engaged in “the collective glorification of approximate journalism”. On CBC’s national show Q, host Jian Ghomeshi asked if I could see that my suggestions were “incendiary”.I did not understand the emotion and vitriol in the reaction. Then I tried to think about these ideas from the perspective of the journalist. “You can’t have a narrative without a narrator,” I think they were telling me. “I decide what the story is. I decide what is worth our effort and your attention. I decide what goes in and what doesn’t. I decide on the beginning and the end. Without me, the storyteller, you can’t have a story.” And without so many stories, do we need as many storytellers? That could be their fear.

It’s bigger than that, though. Questioning the primacy of the article also unravels the organising principle of our information, our thoughts, our society. It’s the same problem we face with the fall of the book.

In researching my next book, Public Parts, I came across work by academics at the University of Southern Denmark who contend that society is emerging from what they magnificently call the Gutenberg parenthesis. At the start of the parenthesis and before print, information and knowledge were passed around orally and copied by scribes, remixed in the process. Inside the parenthesis, in five centuries dominated by text, our information like our world-views became concrete and serial, with beginnings and ends. Or, as Marshall McLuhan wrote: “The line, the continuum – this sentence is a prime example – became the organising principle of life.” Today, on this side of the parenthesis, we are returning to a process orientation as media become malleable and remixed. This, the Danes say, affects our cognition of our world.

When people talk fondly of newspapers and books they aren’t praising just their physical form: the feel and smell, the portability and tangibility. Printed text has boundaries and limits; it is a product of scarcity. Print feels finite, digital infinite. But print is also limiting while digital is freeing. In the transition, abundance is unsettling.

This discussion over the fate of the article has direct relevance to those wanting to shift to digital first. Going digital does not mean merely putting articles online before the presses roll, as then print still rules the process. No – digital first means the net must drive all decisions: how news is covered, in what form, by whom, and when. It dictates that when journalists know something, they are prepared to share it with their public. They may share what they know before their knowledge is complete so the public can help fill in blanks.

In this way, digital first resets the journalistic relationship with the community, making the news organisation less a producer and more an open platform for the public to share what it knows. It is to that process that the journalist adds value. She may do so in many forms – reporting, curating people and their information, providing applications and tools, gathering data, organising effort, educating participants … and writing articles.

John Paton, chief executive of the American newspaper company Journal Register, goes one step further when he sets his path as “digital first, print last”. That doesn’t say print is dead (yet). It says that digital is the future and must determine both news process and business strategy. Print continues while it still supports itself, if it is less expensive to produce (a by-product) or uniquely valuable (a luxury).

In print-as-luxury, the article should be elevated to Economist standards, combining reporting with cogent analysis, unique perspective and brilliant commentary. Should such a newspaper be published daily? Can it meet that standard that often? Perhaps not.

Imagine if a British newspaper with tens of millions of online readers became a digital-only brand freed of the leash of the distance its trucks can drive, able to become a truly international voice. Imagine then if the once-separate Sunday sister title – printed on a more lucrative day of the week than Sunday – became a luxurious journal of reporting and commentary like Die Zeit in Germany (whose print circulation is still growing).

That’s not a recommendation, only an example of where reconsideration of the article could lead. I want to challenge assumptions about the article’s role, not whether it lives or dies. After all, I just wrote one.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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