The media world is undergoing a rapid and uneven evolution — that’s no surprise to anyone who’s watched the size of their daily paper shrink or its percentage of Associated Press content skyrocket. But even though newspapers are shuttering their doors with alarming speed, take it from a journalist: journalism isn’t dead.
There will always be a need for great stories and for truth telling. That will never change. What will change — and what changed a little more when you clicked on this very post — is how information is packaged and presented.
On the Internet, journalists can use multiple forms of media to tell a story. Video, slideshows and interactive graphics bring more depth and complexity than text alone ever could. Perhaps of greater concern for those who have spent years in the news business, Internet users have a shorter attention span than a traditional newspaper audience does. Work must be presented in shorter, snappier, easily shareable formats to achieve maximum visibility. Another thing: The open, deregulated nature of the Internet means words can end up in places their writer never intended.
Millennials are in a special position to understand how to write and package content for the Web.
A friend recently said to me, “You know, kids born in 1989 were the first to really use the Internet as young children.” She’s right — I was in third grade when I got my first AOL screen name. At eight or nine years old, children can read at the level basic Internet usage demands and conceptually understand how the Internet works. My sister was in kindergarten when she got her first screen name, but she didn’t make much use of it until she was in second or third grade.
Millennials, especially those born towards the end of the 1980s, have watched the Internet evolve into something more complex, fascinating, useful, and yes, sometimes scary than we ever could have dreamed back in 1997. And because we’ve kept pace with that evolution, we’re in a better position than many people twice our age to target information for a Web audience.
The same friend who made the 1989 comment is famous for her news presentation philosophy: a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Mary Poppins jokes aside, she has a point. The Internet is not hospitable to the “build it and they will come” mentality that was the M.O. at newspapers for so many years. A successful Web journalist needs to simultaneously create quality content (apologies for the cringes that work provokes from newspaper editors) and market the heck out of it.
For example, I’m a campaign finance reporter. I spend a lot of time looking at Federal Election Commission and Internal Revenue Service filings, and most of the stories I write are based on numbers. Campaign finance stories are often dry, as they provide few opportunities to include imagery or color. Even worse, many end up being 2,000 words or more (by comparison, a typical newspaper story runs about 500 words). That’s hardly the type of work that’s conducive to engaging an audience or getting those almighty page views.
I would be doing my readers a disservice if I stopped writing these stories, but they can be supplemented by sidebars that include key findings, shareable graphics that simplify complex ideas, and shorter posts that repackage the information in a more digestible format. Work can be shared on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms. Hello, page views!
But having this knowledge and being able to apply it to tell the stories that need telling are two very different things. The journalism industry’s 15-years-and-counting transition period has shrunk it considerably. Reporting jobs are harder to come by, and most require significant experience. Yet many — not all, but many — of the same journalists who arrive with a hefty list of sources having trouble understanding and applying the concepts that will get eyes on their stories. This is through no fault of their own; I’m certain I would struggle to understand the machinations of the Internet if I’d been born any time before the late 1970s.
Admittedly, my peers and I have a lot to learn from these veterans, and we lack the managerial experience to be in charge of a newsroom. But we have important ideas to contribute, especially in the areas of social media and Web production. I hope older journalists and editors are listening, otherwise journalism’s hiring practices may be its undoing.