From digital sweatshops to the integrated newsroom - Online journalism 2/3

This is the second of three introductory lectures in online journalism I gave at the Akademie Mode & Design in Berlin. Part 1 was The media and the internet: The history of a failure.

Thanks to the internet, journalism has entered a golden age, some say. Pundits highlighted how smartphones allowed readers to consume quality content on the go,1 how people had access to more content than ever2 and how new technologies allowed for new forms of storytelling.3 These novelties were supposed to let journalism bloom again.

At the same time, one of the most popular Twitter accounts on the beat of the news industry is called @themediaisdying. In the United States, three in five jobs in the newspapers industry disappeared in the past twenty years, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects another 10% to go in the next decade.4 In Germany and France, data is not as precise or reliable, but some estimates point to a slow decrease or a stagnation in the number of journalism jobs.5

This is confusing. Has journalism entered a dark or a golden age? To understand the difference, we need to address journalism in its different missions. Journalism covers a wide variety of practices, from moderating a talk show to the investigating wrongdoings. Not everyone is affected equally by the changes the internet brought.

Mediating discourse

The main activity of a newsroom is to mediate a message between its creator and its intended audience. Mediation, after all, is where the word media comes from. Journalists take information in, typically at a press conference or in a press release, and output a piece of content such as an article to be published or a video or audio segment to be broadcast. In theory, the added value of the journalist is to check and contextualize the piece of information he or she is passing forward, though in practice few do. A 2008 study by the university of Cardiff showed that four in five articles in the British quality press were wholly or in part copy/pasted from news wires or press releases.6

For this kind of journalism, most of the changes the internet brought are technical in nature. Instead of dictating a story on the phone to a typist or typing it on a terminal in the newsroom, journalists can usually access the content management system (CMS) of their company from anywhere, on their laptop. This allowed for decentralized and smaller newsrooms to appear.

Better and cheaper hardware gave rise to the mojo, short for mobile journalist. With just an iPhone and a few accessories and apps, a journalist can now produce cinema-grade film alone and anywhere. With two iPhones and two microphones, you can even set up your own studio and broadcast content live on Facebook or Youtube in conditions not too remote from a professional TV studio - at a fraction of the cost.

This enabled many journalists to tell stories in new way, some of which would never had been told had the technology not evolved so dramatically. However, in most newsrooms, high-tech gadgetry simply meant additional work for journalists, now tasked with filing photo, video and audio content, live-tweeting any ongoing story as well as writing text articles.

Despite the lower costs, the new tools did not free journalists from developing the necessary skills (not everyone can take great pictures, even with an iPhone) and the time needed to produce great content (cutting even a short video takes a lot of time). The dream of a reporter mastering all trades thanks to technology did not, for the vast majority of journalists, come true.

The content deluge

Digitization did not increase quality much, but it did increase quantity. At the most basic level, engaging in plagiarism used to require copying content by hand. It can now be done in seconds with copy/pasting, or even less if some software does the copying automatically!

The plasticity of digital information created a content deluge. Because distribution costs are very low, it can be a profitable business to create as much content as possible and put advertising next to it. Even if each article brings in just a few cents in advertisement, you can turn in a profit if your article cost less to produce.

This vision of journalism was embraced by the likes of Demand Media in the United States or Melty in France. Such companies typically used computer software to identify which topics were trending or had the highest advertising potential. They then tasked content producers, some of which had degrees in journalism, with providing the articles. The key skill associated with this business model was “search engine optimization”, or how to find a title for your article that matched what people would type in the Google search bar. These “content farms” were hit by a change in Google’s algorithm in 2011 that pushed their links down in search results.7

The growth of content farms slowed but the technique did not disappear. Instead, it evolved as attention moved to Facebook. The new way to attract readers was the “clickbait”, a form of article that exploits the curiosity of users to entice them to click on links to low-quality content (Baby Ducks See Water For The First Time — Can You BELIEVE What They Do?). The key skill for journalists became “social media”. It became commonplace, when delivering an article to an editor, to write the text of the Facebook or Twitter updates to go with it. In 2014, Facebook updated its algorithm to sanction the most egregious cases of clickbaiting,8 but social media skills remain a must-have.

Content farms and clickbait are just two highly visible examples of how digitization allowed for new forms of low-quality content to be profitable. Many newsrooms that rely on advertising do not hesitate to publish rumors under the guise of facts or to engage in egregious clickbaiting or deceptive SEO practices in order to attract more attention. The Daily Mail is the most successful at this game,9 but the practice is as old as newspaper, as Axel Springer’s Bild, among others, shows.10

Automating journalism

The digitization of information does not mechanically lead to a drop in quality. Some journalists created algorithms that would aggregate and reorganize content so that it became easily accessible to readers. Adrian Holovaty, a computer developer, decided in 2005 to automatically scrape content from the Chicago police department and republish it on a map, so that users could access crime data for their street or their block.11

Since then, many other automated services were created. Companies use finance or sports data to automatically write summaries of a day’s trading on the stock exchange (here’s an example) or of a sports game. While fairly widespread in the United States, the technology does not seem mature enough for European languages other than English.

Such automated content generation is mostly a series of sentences pre-written by humans where computers fill in the blanks. Some services go further and try to identify interesting bits of information in a data set. Newsworthy, a Swedish service, sends alerts to journalists when it finds something interesting in the data streams it monitors, for instance.

As with any increase in productivity, it is up to the owners to decide if they use the technology to replace human workers or to grow their business. The best uses of robot journalism are often a mix of human and automated interactions. The Los Angeles Times runs QuakeBot since 2014, a computer program that monitors earthquakes using data from the US Geological Survey. As soon as it registers a tremor above a certain threshold, the robot publishes an article. This lets staff journalists time to go on site and collect testimonies and other context information to continue the article the robot started.

Integrating the newsroom

All across the industry, because managers had no plan for it, the internet was seen as a threat that would cannibalize the high-quality content reserved for the traditional version. As a result, experienced or ambitious journalists shunned the web (some still do). Online journalists were underpaid, scorned and sometimes, especially when it came to moderating comments sections, outsourced to companies in poorer countries.

When I did an internship at the online section of a major Belgian daily in 2006, I was told by a colleague that the web was for those who didn’t want to work anymore. It made sense, for the small team was located below the main newsroom floor, next to the printing presses. In 2009, a French (print) journalist caused an outrage among online journalists when he wrote that they were just like slaves, their pallid faces glaring at computers like battery chicken.12 While some of his reporting was true, the piece showed how far apart the print and online parts of a newsroom could be.

The situation changed in the mid-2010s. Most newsroom were “integrated”, meaning that their traditional and online operations were merged in part or in whole. Within the larger trend of the shrinkage of most newsrooms, integration often meant letting people go. It also allowed for a new proximity between online and traditional skills. Some teams now focus on creating tools that let everyone in the newsroom create infographics and other interative formats. The best examples of this come from Switzerland, with Q of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the Toolbox of Le Temps, which aim at making all journalists in a newsroom proficient online journalists.

Producing for the web

When we look at journalism as the art of telling stories, digitization really did usher in a new golden age. In the newsrooms and outside of them, programmers and designers rethought how content could be displayed to users. Stories used to be told orally, then came text and engravings with the printing press, then photography, sound and video in the late 19th and early 20th century. Modern devices, from the personal computer to the smart watch, coupled with broadband internet, allowed to merge these formats together and explore further beyond.

The New York Times is probably the most active newsroom in this respect. It takes pride in staying at the bleeding edge of innovation and produced several milestones in storytelling (even if the ideas were not always pioneered by the Times, its might let it create larger and better products). In 2012, it popularized the “longform” article, where text, photos and videos are integrated in a single flow of content.13 In 2016, it introduced 360° videos.14 They now even produce interactive opinion pieces.15

The New York Times is by no means alone. New formats are pioneered in datavisualization to create interactive explainers such as Rock ‘n Poll, an exploration of how polls work, by Belgian data-visualizer Maarten Lambrechts. Interactivity is used to make articles more game-like, either to provide an enticing introduction16 or to create complete “newsgames”.17 Others try to “sonify” information, turning data into music.18

Contrary to a popular belief, online pieces, even mobile ones, need not be short. Some stories command reading times of more than ten minutes (the time spent on an article on any device is usually less than thirty seconds), as much as or more than the time spent on a print article.

Online products need not be short but they need to be good. A good product, online, requires many different skills, from the copy, usually written by a journalist, to the computer programming that brings the interactivity to life, to the testing (there are thousands of devices with which digital content is consumed, from laptops to phones to TVs). This mix of skills requires to reorganize the way a newsroom creates content. Traditionally, journalists produced content alone, usually in one medium only (text, photo or video). Digital content requires to work in teams. With teams, a new skill entered the newsroom, that of project management.

Investigations and collaborations

Investigation is probably the field of journalism that changed most as a result of digitization. The Watergate scandal, for instance, involved a source meeting journalists in a parking lot and giving documents printed on paper. Today, large investigations such as the Panama Papers rely on digitized content, often in the form of databases several gigabytes large.

As society moved from physical to digital records to store information, the skills needed to examine it changed, too. One aspect of journalism is to look for wrongdoings and hold the powerful to account. Doing this in a digital world requires extensive computer skills, such as knowledge of programming languages to process and query the databases holding interesting pieces of information. Some journalists set up robots that automatically scan databases of public procurements to spot anomalies, such as the Red Flags project. In other cases, a source might leak a series of files, up to several thousands gigabytes in size. Reading all the material by hand would be impossible and journalists need to use or create specific software to analyze it.19

The changes in the material investigative journalists must go through to find stories led to a change in the skills an investigative team needs. It is not rare to find statisticians, back-end developers or data-visualizers working alongside traditional investigative reporters.20

On top of this change in the techniques of investigations, processes changed, too. The long-term decline in the revenues of many media organizations pushed owners to reduce funding for news and journalism (see the previous lecture). This downfall had a silver lining. The dogma of exclusivity is slowly disappearing from newsrooms. A journalist’s first reaction, when she receives a juicy piece of information, is becoming less about protecting it from fellow journalists and more about sharing it to obtain maximum impact from publication.


The way digitization impacted journalism falls in two broad categories. Work of little value, such as rewriting press releases or presenting already public information (sports results, financial reports etc.) saw a huge increase in productivity, sometimes at the expense of truth (as in the case of the Daily Mail). Poorly-paid writers and computer programs are able to publish more content, faster than before.

Expensive content, on the other hand, such as interactive storytelling and investigations, saw deep changes in production techniques. The skills involved (programming) and the organization (teams instead of lone journalists) allowed for a new group of professionals to come to the fore, including outsiders with little or no background in traditional journalism.

Cover illustration: Hannah Höch, Augenstrauß, 1930.

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Notes

1. How the Smartphone Ushered In a Golden Age of Journalism.

2. Journalism Has Entered A Golden Age.

3. Now is the golden age of journalism.

4. See here for the past trend and here for the future one.

5. See here for Germany and here for France.

6. Davies, Nick. Flat earth news: An award-winning reporter exposes falsehood, distortion and propaganda in the global media. Random House, 2011.

7. The Rise And Fall Of Content Farms.

8. How Facebook Plans To Remove Clickbait From Your News Feed.

9. For an insider’s view of the newsroom: My Year Ripping Off the Web With the Daily Mail Online

10. For a dramatized example from the 1970s, read Böll, Heinrich. Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum; oder, Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie führen kann: Erzählung. Deutschen Taschenbuch Verlag, 1974. For a longer discussion on the link between truth and journalism, I wrote The roots of fake news.

11. In memory of chicagocrime.org.

12. Les forçats de l’info.

13. The first flagship piece, Snowfall, was used as a verb for some time in newsrooms.

14. Introducing The Daily 360 From The New York Times.

15. See for instance Automated Vehicles Can’t Save Cities.

16. As in Wissen Sie noch, wo die Mauer Berlin teilte?.

17. such as The Good, The Bad and The Accountant, a newsgame on corruption in public budgets

18. Der Sound zum tiefen Fall der SPD by Morgenpost and Listen to the music of seismic activity in Oklahoma by Reveal.

19. There are many articles explaining the technical aspects of major investigations, such as How Reporters Pulled Off the Panama Papers, the Biggest Leak in Whistleblower History.

20. Kayser-Bril, Nicolas. Wie Computer den Journalismus verändern. Journalismus in der digitalen Moderne. Springer VS, Wiesbaden, 2013. 135-139.


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